With another heartfelt plea for action, B.C.’s chief coroner released a report Wednesday on more than 6,000 avoidable deaths in the past four years due to illicit drugs, begging for action.
Despite the state of emergency, the death toll has skyrocketed and the institutions that should be responding are dragging their feet or, worse, doing nothing.
There has been little success battling the crisis and additional alternative solutions are needed immediately, Lisa Lapointe maintained.
The COVID-19 response was coordinated using an emergency management structure, with emergency operation centres established in each health region. Nothing similar was done for the drug crisis.
In 2016, the rate of illicit drug deaths was 20.4 per 100,000 population. By 2020-21 it had increased to 38.4 per 100,000 population.
“These are people who resided across British Columbia in communities large and small, people dealing with pain and trauma, people living in poverty or employed and supporting families, people young and old, healthy and unwell, people from diverse ethnic backgrounds – people just like everyone else,” said the experts’ report.
“The continued toll of unintentional drug toxicity deaths has created devastating effects on the families, friends, and communities of the deceased.”
For all the wringing of hands and wailing, however, the emperor has no clothes.
The province is waiting for Ottawa to do something, the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons has been accused of intimidating doctors wanting to help, police and the courts continue to charge and jail mostly victims rather than those importing and adulterating drugs.
“We are treating substance use and addiction as a health-care issue, not a criminal one,” Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, insisted.
As a reality check, though, consider two cases before the B.C. Court of Appeal this week where compassion was nowhere to be found.
Forget all that touchy-feely decriminalization talk, the province’s top court wanted nothing to do with sparing the rod and spoiling the child.
It has established a sentencing range starting at 18 months’ imprisonment for first offenders trafficking fentanyl even though most street-level dealers are trying to subsidize their own habits and are bit players in the drug business.
So a 52-year-old Vancouver Island man with kidney disease who goes for dialysis three times a week, a miscreant who has been abusing substances his entire life, will spend another 18 months imprisoned.
In Oct. 2018, an undercover officer came to Reiner Peter Niederhumer’s house and bought 0.17 grams of heroin for $40 and the next day returned and bought another 0.19 grams of heroin. When Niederhumer was arrested, he had 3.8 grams of fentanyl.
This man’s father was murdered when he was only 17, his brother died in 2011, he has a Grade 10 education, he has not worked since 1991 and receives disability assistance.
Niederhumer was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2010 and is dependent on opioids to function, and uses heroin or fentanyl daily for the pain. He sold drugs in order to support his habit and to pay bills and uses a fentanyl patch prescribed by a physician.
Sounds like a real gang leader. Imagine, he acknowledged his responsibility by pleading guilty but does not view selling drugs as criminal.
Niederhumer had to be jailed, said the judge, because his “complete lack of insight into his offending behaviour is very disturbing and one that ought not to be treated lightly.”
The appeal bench agreed wholeheartedly: After all, you can bet when he gets out of prison and his life has deteriorated even further, he’ll become a contributing member of the community.
Or how about Sung Hwan Choi, 21, arrested for his first offence who was also sent to jail supposedly in the name of fighting the opioid crisis.
A high school graduate who worked at various low-paying jobs before being lured by a friend to travel from the Lower Mainland to Vernon to participate in an established dial-a-dope operation.
He thought he could make a quick buck, and he sold drugs for a couple of weeks before he was arrested on Oct. 27, 2017.
Choi returned to the Lower Mainland to live with his family, became gainfully employed, did volunteer work at a soup kitchen and had the support of his family. He was living a pro-social lifestyle and expressed genuine remorse for his conduct.
It didn’t make any difference, even being young and less culpable than an older adult: He was sentenced to 18 months in jail and a year’s probation.
These are not outliers.
The police are busting victims, people using illicit substances with little or no idea if their products are adulterated. These are the corner-store clerks, not the drug-business managers.
The panel of experts found Canada’s drug prohibition contributes to an increase in substance-related emergencies and deaths.
“Decriminalization will reduce the fear and shame that keeps people silent and leads so many to hide their drug use and avoid treatment and support,” assured Malcolmson, sounding like an echo chamber.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine and the B.C. Provincial Health Officer along with researchers, addiction specialists and the Health Canada Expert Task Force on Substance Use, have all publicly called for decriminalization.
It hasn’t happened. Maybe after another 2,500 or so people die in 2022, it might.
But as long as the politicians and the mainstream medical community sit on their hands spouting bromides about the need to do more, the well-paid cops, judges and others in the legal system will keep happily arresting people, jailing them and preaching about morality.
And the body count will just keep climbing.