Would Decriminalization Solve the Overdose Crisis?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Vancouver, British Columbia was the first major North American city to be hit by the overdose crisis. In 2016, after a wave of overdose deaths involving illicit fentanyl and even more deadly synthetic opioids like carfentanil, the western Canadian province declared a public health emergency.

Despite efforts to decrease the supply of prescription opioids in BC, over 3,600 more people have overdosed since the emergency was declared, with fentanyl detected in 87% of the deaths last year.

So when BC’s largest healthcare system recommends some radical solutions to the overdose crisis, it’s worth noting. Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) released a report last month recommending that illegal drugs be decriminalized and that drug users be given access to prescription opioids as an alternative to the black market.

"Legalization and regulation of all psychoactive substances would reduce people's dependence on the toxic illegal supply, criminal drug trafficking and illegal activities that people with addictions must engage in to finance their drug use," said Dr. Patricia Daly, VCH’s chief medical health officer.  

Some Canadian drug policy experts think the idea makes sense.

"The illegal market is an absolute toxic mess right now," Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, told the CBC. "It's really in line with consumer protection strategy ... just like we do with every other substance that we ingest, whether it be food or drugs."

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Also notable about the VCH report is that – unlike most regulators and politicians in Canada and the U.S. – prescription opioids are not singled out as the root cause of the overdose crisis. Instead, opioid medication is seen as part of the solution.

The report recommends pilot programs to see if prescription fentanyl and other opioid medications made available at supervised consumption sites could help high-risk illicit drug users “transition” to legal opioids.

“Piloting legal access to opioids is different from OAT (opioid agonist therapy) as treatment and would be low-barrier and flexible. Initial pilots would include observation of consumption, followed by pilots allowing distribution of opioids for people to take away for later consumption,” the report recommends.

The idea is controversial, but some doctors are warming up to it. A pilot program recently began at a Vancouver clinic, where hydromorphone tablets are given to about 50 patients who ingest them on site under staff supervision. In Ontario, over 400 healthcare providers and researchers recently signed an open letter asking that high dose injectable hydromorphone be made widely available to illicit drug users.

Substance Abuse and Socioeconomic Problems

The primary cause of the opioid crisis, according to the VCH report, is a “complex interaction” of socioeconomic problems, such as unemployment and homelessness, combined with substance abuse and an increasingly dangerous black market supply.

VCH analyzed the deaths of 424 overdose victims from 2017 and found that less than half (45%) even sought treatment for acute or chronic pain. They were far more likely to be unemployed (72%) and have a substance abuse problem (84%). About four out of ten overdose victims used opioids, alcohol or stimulants daily.

“Most of those who died used multiple substances including opioids, alcohol and stimulants such as cocaine and crystal meth. A significant percentage of those who died of opioid overdoses had primary alcohol use disorder and/or stimulant use disorder,” the report found.

Importantly, most of those who died were no strangers to the healthcare system. The vast majority (77%) had seen a healthcare provider in the year before they overdosed and one out of five (21%) had seen a provider a week before their death. Six out of ten (59%) had received Suboxone or methadone to treat opioid addiction, but the medications were either not effective or they dropped out of treatment.

In addition to decriminalization, the VCH report recommends improving access to addiction treatment, better substance abuse training of healthcare providers, and increased access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone.