In April 2016, the then-BC Liberal government declared a public health emergency in the province, because the number of people overdosing and dying had increased at an alarming rate. That year, B.C. recorded close to 1,000 deaths.
More than 7,000 people have since died in British Columbia.
When the NDP government was elected in 2017, it created a Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and announced $322 million in funding over three years for the poisoned drugs crisis.
Of this funding, only 7.5 per cent was allocated to harm reduction initiatives: $15 million to a community crisis innovation fund; $6 million to naloxone distribution; and $3.4 million to frontline initiatives such as the mobile response team.
Interestingly, 9.7 per cent — $31.3 million — was allocated to law enforcement despite mounting calls for drug decriminalization, and two per cent — $6.74 million — on a public awareness campaign. The bulk of the funding, a little over 80 per cent, was spent on treatment services.
Fast-track to this week.
The B.C. government announced Tuesday that its new budget includes $330 million in funding over three years for the overdose crisis, which now kills more than five people a day in the province. Of that funding, 86 per cent is allocated to treatment — a six-percentage-point increase since 2017. The rest of the funding is allocated to overdose prevention, a small budget of $15 million per year.
Perspective is important, especially when analyzing budget announcements designed to maximize political capital and distract from the obvious: nothing in this budget tackles drivers of the overdose crisis.
The drug supply in B.C. is poisoned. This is a well-known and widely documented fact. Between 2018 and 2020, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues were detected in 87 per cent of the toxicology reports conducted by the BC Coroners Service.
This percentage is expected to increase in 2021, predicted to be the deadliest year to date in B.C.
There are alternatives to a poisoned drug supply. One of them is implementing safe supply initiatives as part of the continuum of care and services for people who use substances. Safe supply initiatives are currently under way in B.C., but they are not reaching those who need it and they rely on patchwork funding, including federal support.
The B.C. budget does not include safe supply as part of its treatment plan, nor does it have a stand-alone commitment to ensure that crucial, life-saving initiatives are scaled up and sustained across the province for the next three years.
Safe supply is mentioned once in the service plan of the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. No performance measure is included to assess the effectiveness of the promise to provide an alternative to poisoned drugs.
The same is true for decriminalization. It appears once. No performance measure is included in the service plan. No funding is allocated to ensure that B.C. follows through on its commitment to decriminalize drug possession and shift resources away from law enforcement and toward approaches that have been proven to work.
In fact, law enforcement continues to receive some funding related to the overdose crisis. It has now been moved to the justice and public safety funding portfolio.
In 2019, a study revealed that scaling up naloxone kits, overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites, and opioid treatment saved thousands of lives in B.C. Without them, the death toll would have been double what it is now. There is no doubt that these interventions work: they must be funded and scaled-up. However, they won’t get us out of this overdose crisis.
I’m not suggesting that the solutions to this crisis will be found in a budget.
However, this new budget signals a troubling status quo. More treatment funding, granted, but at the core, the approach — despite thousands of deaths — is not so different than the 2017 budget.