COLUMN: No evidence supervised sites to blame for overdose deaths

Statistics dispel idea that supervised sites leading to more fatal overdoses.

Tyler Olsen

Tyler Olsen

As B.C. continues to cope with a stunning number of fatal opioid overdoses, the province has significantly expanded the number of places where people can use drugs, knowing help is nearby in case of an overdose.

It’s a stop-gap measure to try to save lives now, while (hopefully) longer-term measures are put in place. Nevertheless, with dozens dying every week, some have suggested a link between the presence of the long-running supervised injection site, InSite in Vancouver, and the current overdose epidemic.

This theory, it needs to be said loudly, flies in the face of all available evidence.

There are legitimate arguments for and against supervised injection sites, but one thing is clear: There have been more than 3,000 fatal overdoses across the province in the years since InSite was established, but not one has been at a supervised site.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that those InSite users are dying elsewhere. The overdose rate in Vancouver is the highest in the province, but that’s unsurprising, since homeless men and women have long congregated in the Hastings area to access both services and to belong to a community of people.

But I doubt many of those suggesting InSite is to blame are aware of just how prevalent fatal overdoses are outside of the Lower Mainland.

In the Northern Health Authority – far removed from East Hastings – 49 people died of illicit drug overdoses in 2016. In 2009, that number was six. The Northeast health service area of the province – closer to Edmonton than Vancouver – has the third-highest fatal overdose rate in B.C.

Kamloops recorded 40 deaths last year, Kelowna had 48, Prince George 17 and Vernon 13.

You can read for yourself here.

Further afield, the United States has also seen a dramatic increase in fatal overdoses.

InSite has nothing to do with this.

So what is the cause?

By this point, it’s pretty clear that the prevalence of fentanyl and synthetic opioids is driving the number of deaths.

But one must also look at why people are using such drugs in the first place.

First of all, no one deserves the increasingly frequent outcome of opioid use, no matter what first led them down their current path.

But it’s also worth dispelling another myth: that all drug users have independently chosen to use heroin and its even-more-deadly cousins.

Beyond all the age-old social causes that lead one to turn to heroin and other drugs, research has consistently pointed to a more recent development driving the continent-wide scourge: the over-prescription of supposedly less-addictive painkillers, particularly OxyContin.

In 2007, the company that made OxyContin admitted in court that it had told doctors and patients that its drug was less addictive. And some doctors turned too quickly to painkillers.

“Prescription opiates have to be contributing to this because we grossly overuse them in this country,” Fraser Health medical health officer Dr. Andrew Larder told an Abbotsford committee last year.

“There is a desperate need to deal with how physicians are prescribing opiates and how physicians manage pain.”

Last year, prescribing guidelines in British Columbia were revised to do just that.

But we are, and will be, seeing the effects of opioid over-prescribing for years to come. Condemning those who have become addicted – including our neighbours, family members and co-workers – is no solution.

– Tyler Olsen is a reporter with the Abbotsford News.