A man injects drugs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Canada needs a new approach to tackle its overdose crisis, says the lead author of a new study that highlights a prevalence of overdoses involving non-prescribed fentanyl and stimulants in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

New study calls for new approach to tackling overdose crisis

There have been more than 15,000 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada since 2016

Canada needs a new approach to tackle its overdose crisis, says the lead author of a new study that highlights a prevalence of overdoses involving non-prescribed fentanyl and stimulants in British Columbia.

There have been more than 15,000 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada since 2016.

British Columbia has recorded more than 5,000 deaths from illicit drug overdoses since declaring a public health emergency in 2016.

The study, published on Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, looked at 1,789 overdose deaths in British Columbia between 2015 and 2017 in which the coroner was able to determine the substances relevant to the deaths.

It reported that despite decreases in the prescription of opioids across the province, the death rate from illegal drug overdoses has continued to rise.

Dr. Alexis Crabtree, the study’s lead author and resident physician in public health and preventative medicine at the University of British Columbia, says it highlights what isn’t working when it comes to tackling the overdose crisis.

“What we found is that this overdose crisis is not driven by prescribed medications and de-prescribing initiatives alone won’t solve the overdose crisis,” she said in an interview.

In most cases where prescribed opioids were implicated in a death, the toxicology report also flagged the non-prescribed opioids in the person’s system, Crabtree added.

The study’s findings also highlight the declining role of prescription opioids and heroin in the overdose crisis and the rise of synthetic opioids and stimulants.

The current strategies on battling the overdose crisis “must do much more” than target de-prescribing opioids, the study concludes.

READ MORE: Talks needed on decriminalizing hard drugs to address opioid crisis, Tam says

Men continue to dominate the overdose death toll, making up more than 80 per cent of deaths, with people between the ages of 31 to 49 making up the predominant number of deaths.

One aspect that is often overlooked is the efficacy of methadone and buprenorphine, opioids used to treat opioid addiction, Crabtree said.

The study showed that few overdoses involved people with those opioids in their system, which Crabtree said she believes should make doctors feel more comfortable in prescribing them to drug users.

In B.C., the provincial government expanded the access to a safe supply of prescription drugs near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic due to concerns about the number of overdose deaths arising from isolated drug users.

That program, and subsequent concerns raised over the prescribing of illicit-alternative drugs, prompted the decision to publish the study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Crabtree said.

“A question or concern physicians have is ‘is the medication I’m prescribing contributing to overdoses?’” said Crabtree. ”I can understand why people have that concern. I think these results are really reassuring that prescribed medications are not a driver of overdose risks and supports physicians to prescribe under those risk mitigation guidelines.”

She said she agrees with the recommendations of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry who called for the decriminalization of people who possess small amounts of drugs in a 2019 report.

At the time, Henry wrote that the province “cannot wait for action at the federal level.”

She reiterated those recommendations in June 2020, which saw 175 suspected overdose-related deaths.

“COVID-19 has made clear the government can act in a very fast and effective way when it prioritizes a response to a public health emergency,” said Crabtree. “I would love to see that same effectiveness applied to responding to the overdose emergency and protecting the health of people who use drugs.”

More access to overdose prevention and supervised inhalation sites should be some of the next steps forward both in B.C. and across the country, she added.

The federal government launched a national consultation on supervised-consumption sites last week, seeking comments from a variety of Canadians, including those who operate the sites and those who use them.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Drugsopioid crisisopioidsoverdoseoverdose crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COLUMN: The importance of treating yourself gently

‘Six months into this pandemic and I am starting to struggle. I am starting to be weary’

Central zone down to 19 active COVID-19 cases on Thursday

Provincially, 158 new COVID-19 cases were identified

Sylvan Lake gathers to honour the fallen at annual Flags of Remembrance ceremony

The smaller-than-normal ceremony starts the “season of remembrance” in Sylvan Lake

Central zone has 20 active cases of COVID-19

Province identified 143 new cases across Alberta on Wednesday

Highlights from the Town of Castor Sept. 14th meeting of council

Town of Castor administration has started the process of modernizing the Airport Bylaw

Liberals vow wage-subsidy extension to 2021, revamp of EI system in throne speech

Canadian labour market was hammered by pandemic, when lockdowns in the spring led to a loss of 3 million jobs

Hundreds die from opioid overdoses in Alberta as COVID-19 pandemic hit

Jason Luan said the province is not alone in seeing a rise in deaths,

Wetaskiwin/ Camrose RCMP conduct a joint forces initiative with Camrose Police Service

The multifaceted joint forces initiative with on Sept. 23, 2020 proved very successful.

Alberta politicians reject throne speech

Premier Kenney disapointed with lack of support for Alberta energy

‘Won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving:’ Trudeau says COVID-19 2nd wave underway

In all, COVID-19 has killed about 9,250 people in Canada

Searchers find bodies in Jasper National Park, remains believed to be missing couple

RCMP along with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner continue to investigate

Canada’s active COVID-19 cases top 10,000 as daily new cases triple over the past month

Dr. Tam repeated her warning to young people, who have made up the majority of recent cases

Most Read