Our Friendly Neighbor's Dirty Little Secret

West end and downtown Vancouver boast some of the most expensive real estate and shops, but a short walk east reveals another reality: Downtown Eastside, one of Canada’s most impoverished areas and home to British Columbia’s worst drug crisis. For a while, I’ve been blind enough to have overlooked this brewing crisis and the inefficiency of the Canadian government in writing policy to make our communities healthier. But first, here’s a rundown of the crisis and an overview of the Canadian government’s policies.

An “opioid crisis” refers to a rapid rise in drug overdoses and deaths involving drugs such as “prescription opioids and increasingly toxic illegal drugs due to the increased presence of powerful illegal substances such as fentanyl, a drug up to one hundred times the strength of morphine” (Government of Canada) overdosing, especially individuals who “are struggling with problematic substance abuse, use drugs occasionally in recreational context, are trying an illegal drug for the first time, and are strongly not following their healthcare professional’s instructions.” In Canada, this severe public health crisis, now rampant for five years, traces back to the ’90s when Downtown Eastside became known as the gritty part of Vancouver. During the 1990s, the neighborhood experienced a severe decline due to the presence of hard drugs and the mistreatment of those with mental illnesses ultimately leading to the drug crisis that many Vancouverites face today. As of April, 2016, British Columbia remained in an emergency health crisis. In Vancouver, in August 2016 alone, more than a thousand overdosed in hard drugs.

Today, opioids and fentanyl continues to affect Vancouver’s most neediest communities beyond the borders of British Columbia. Aboriginal communities in Alberta have been plagued with crimes due to the drug crisis; likewise, Downtown Eastside has between six and eight thousand residents, a significant proportion of aboriginals ultimately revealing how some marginalized groups are disproportionately affected by hard drugs.

The number of overdoses especially in Downtown Eastside has been rising even as safe injection sites begin to appear. The Canadian government, therefore, is committed to the following actions, according to the Joint Statement of Action to affect the Opioid Crisis: “this strategy is a balanced and health-focused approach to drug policy involving a strong foundation in evidence, the restoration of harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement (Government of Canada).” These policies are a nullification of the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s War on Drugs in 2015, a movement that disproportionately affected marginalized communities and jailed many individuals with no previous criminal background.

Clearly, the Canadian government, with regards to the Opioid Crisis, is attempting to provide support for drug addicts and marginalized groups, and yet the number of overdose deaths continues to rise. Online figure Justin McElroy tweeted, “Fentanyl was detected in 67% of overdose-related deaths in B.C. last year. That seems high, right? This year it's at 81%.” While the Canadian government implemented specific calls to action, numbers suggest that specific policies were not enforced. In the same article showing a press conference during a Union of BC Municipalities even this year, questions regarding the crisis were not being asked; rather, many politicians discussed their emotional frustration regarding the crisis, completely disregarding the actions needed to end the previous administration’s war on drugs.

Canadian politicians must implement a more aggressive strategy to quell the opium crisis and provide assistance to the neediest in our cities to prevent the emergency situation from becoming the norm. Concrete actions, rather than emotional sodder, along with many social reforms will decrease the drug-related deaths.

Image: CBC News