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Toxic drug death figures ‘distressing’ minister says as critics accuse NDP of failure

Jennifer Whiteside promises more action, but also blames B.C. Liberals and COVID
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside promises more action on dealing with toxic drug deaths while also blaming past governments and COVID-19 for undoing previous progress. Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

The minister leading the fight against B.C.’s toxic drug crisis called figures showing that 2022 was its second deadliest year “distressing” while promising to use every tool at her disposal to reverse the trend.

“We need to continue to scale up treatment and supports, which we are doing,” Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside said last week, just hours after the BC Coroners’ Service announced that 2,272 people died from poisoned drugs last year — 34 deaths short of 2021’s record total.

Opposition parties hammered Whiteside’s NDP government and Whiteside herself acknowledged more needs to be done, while also pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic, and past government failures.

Whiteside spoke after a trio of experts had called for additional actions and a “sense of urgency” to address the crisis.

Key among those voices was B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe. She pointed to a medical panel, which made three recommendations in March 2022: make the drug supply safer; develop a coordinated, goal-driven provincial strategy; and, build a comprehensive continuum of substance use care.

Lapointe said that panel also repeated recommendations of a 2017 panel to provincially regulate treatment and recovery programs, to ensure that they provide quality care, and monitor and evaluate outcomes.

“In January 2023, large gaps remain in all th0se areas,” she said.

Lapointe was especially critical of the current inability to evaluate existing treatment programs.

“We heard many announcements about beds, but there is still no provincial framework for regulation and reporting on outcomes,” she said. “So we don’t actually know across the province where those beds are. We don’t actually know what it means when a bed is funded, how many people does that help, what are the outcomes for those people?”

B.C. Liberals’ MLA Elenore Sturko said the current approach is failing.

“To this day, the NDP government has ignored the urgent timetable and has failed to take meaningful steps to address serious gaps in the system of care,” the mental health and addictions shadow minister said in a statement. “Beyond the patchwork system that has been this NDP government’s approach for far too long, it’s time for comprehensive action. Our province needs record investment in prevention, recovery, and treatment programs now.”

RELATED: Chief coroner prescribes ‘urgency’ as B.C. records 2,272 toxic drug deaths in 2022

B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau linked toxic drugs to broader issues such declining mental health, unaffordability and lack of preventive healthcare.

“We must rebuild the systems that hold people up and help them recover,” she said. “(Forty) years of cuts and mismanagement have created a highwire out of our social safety net. This BC NDP government has had almost (seven) years to change that and yet most British Columbians are still walking the tightrope.”

Whiteside said government is “very focused” on collecting the necessary information when asked about Lapointe’s comments. But she also tried to shift the blame to the previous B.C. Liberal government.

“What we inherited was a fragmented collection of services that we have been working on pulling together into a coherent system so that there is a single pathway for individuals on their journey for care and support and treatment,” she said.

Whiteside highlighted various investments and defended her government’s record in dealing with the crisis — a record that could have been better had it not been for COVID-19.

“So from 2017 to 2018 we worked on increasing treatment options, increasing counselling options, increasing harm reduction services, talking about stigma, and we saw the results of all of those efforts in 2019 when the mortality rate from toxic drug poisoning decreased significantly,” she said. “Then, of course, the following year we were taken up with the COVID-19 global pandemic and we have lost ground over the course of the pandemic.”

One measure Whiteside highlightedwas the decriminalization of certain drugs for personal use. She called it a historic change, but also tempered expectations.

“(We) know that this will, of course, not solve the crisis on its own,” she said.

Overall, Whiteside promised progress, but also acknowledged the seriousness of the figures.

“(There’s) no question, it’s a challenging day today.”


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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