Once COVID is finally tamed, Canada will have to tackle the ‘other pandemic’

Posted on September 13, 2021 in Health Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Sept. 12, 2021.   By Star Editorial Board

Ontario’s science table of expert advisers has been a trusted voice throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve come to look to it for guidance amid the often-confusing chorus of voices offering advice on how to navigate the crisis.

So why not listen to the same experts on another health crisis, one that is also taking the lives of hundreds of Ontarians each year?

It is, of course, the crisis of fatal drug overdoses, mainly opioids, that has devastated families and whole communities for years and become even worse during COVID. Deaths are up markedly across the country, and the trend is particularly bad in Ontario.

In a new report last week, the science table says opioid overdose deaths in the province have increased by 60 per cent since the start of the pandemic in March of last year. The rate of emergency medical services for suspected overdoses are up by the same amount.

This is a slower-moving crisis than COVID, but the toll it is taking is on the same order of magnitude. The latest federal update says almost 22,000 Canadians died from overdoses between 2016 and the end of last year, 6,819 of them in Ontario. By now the numbers are even higher. (By comparison, just over 27,000 Canadians have died of COVID.)

The science table called for a broad range of strategies to tackle the opioid crisis, and we can add their report to a very long list of appeals for urgent action on this front.

Yet governments (with the notable exception of British Columbia, which has been hardest hit) haven’t managed to muster a lot of attention to what’s become known as the “other pandemic.”

This isn’t hard to explain. COVID hit hard and affected almost everyone; and the hardest-hit, seniors in long-term-care homes, attract widespread sympathy. Those who use, and sometimes abuse, drugs are more easily ignored.

But these deaths matter, too. Drug policy should not be dictated by outmoded moral judgments; mental health and addiction are medical issues, every bit as much as communicable diseases like COVID-19, and need to be treated as such.

In this election campaign, all the parties at least pay lip service to that principle.All acknowledge the gravity of the opioid crisis, but they differ significantly on how they would address it.

The Liberals, New Democrats and Greens all support expanding safer supply programs and safe consumption services, both measures designed to prevent overdose deaths in the short run.

The NDP and Greens would go further, though. They support calls from medical experts and even Canada’s police chiefs to decriminalize simple possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

Neither of the two leading parties has endorsed that idea. The Liberals promise $500 million to help provinces and territories provide a “full range of evidence-based treatment,” language that indicates continued support for harm-reduction measures like safe consumption sites.

The Conservatives under Erin O’Toole, to their credit, have come around to the idea that addiction should be treated primarily as a medical issue, not a legal one.

They urged more “judicial discretion” for those charged with drug offences — essentially giving judges more leeway to recommend treatment programs rather than prison time for those charged with relatively minor drug crimes.

And the Conservatives have proposed a major push on treatment and recovery programs for those who use drugs. They promise to set aside $325 million over three years to create 1,000 beds for treating addiction, and to establish more drug treatment centres.

Neither major party is prepared to go where an increasing number of medical and legal experts — from public health officers to those chiefs of police — say they should: taking possession of drugs for personal use out of the Criminal Code entirely.

And neither party is particularly eager to talk about the opioid crisis during the election campaign. But once COVID is finally brought under control, we’ll still have the other pandemic on our hands. It should be getting more attention from both politicians and voters.



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