Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions in B.C. (B.C. Government photo)

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions in B.C. (B.C. Government photo)

MALCOLMSON: 2020 left us grappling with overdose tragedy and working for change

B.C.’s Addictions Minister reflects on visit to Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver

By Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions

Where were you in the year 2020? This will be a question asked around dinner tables for years to come.

Some people will recall the challenges of working from home while raising kids. Others will reflect on how difficult being on the frontlines was. Too many will remember losing a loved one to overdose, because 2020 was the year when illicit street drugs became more toxic and dangerous than ever before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on people’s physical and mental health, and underserved populations have suffered the most.

In B.C., 1,716 people lost their life to overdose in 2020 – that’s almost five people a day. Before the pandemic, overdose deaths dropped for the first time in years, but COVID-19 has made everything worse. One of the most insidious things has been a disruption in the supply chain for illicit drugs, leading to dramatically more lethal drugs on our streets. Add that to the stigma that drives people to use alone, on top of social isolation, and you have a recipe for a tragic surge in overdose deaths.

READ MORE: With 1,716 deaths, 2020 deadliest year of overdose crisis in B.C. history

On a virtual tour of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, I met Sam, a 29-year-old supervisor who is in recovery and working to help others. Sam connects with about 100 people a day who drop by for addiction services, food and support, and says many who use drugs just want to be heard and have a friend.

Behind each overdose statistic is a person with a story.

Addiction is not a moral failing; it is a health condition. Whether a person has a heart problem, diabetes or a substance use disorder, they deserve access to dignified, barrier-free health care.

The overdose crisis requires urgent action – people’s lives depend on it. We are working as quickly as possible to patch holes in the system and build something better.

Separating people from toxic street drugs is the first step to saving lives. Today, 23,000 British Columbians are receiving medications to treat opioid addiction – more than ever before. B.C. is training registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe these medications to help more people. This work is the first of its kind in Canada.

We are doubling youth treatment beds and adding 100 more publicly funded adult treatment beds to ensure help is available when someone is ready to take that step.

And we are breaking new ground on increasing access to safer pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs, and working with the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of controlled substances – as called for by police chiefs and others – to reduce stigma and remove barriers in the way of people getting help.

When people ask me where I was in 2020, I will be proud to say I joined a team of passionate people like Sam working to save lives across the province. 2020 was a tragic year, but there is reason for hope as we push forward and innovate to build the future of mental health and addictions care British Columbians deserve.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

opioid crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
43 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

368 cases in the region remain active

The Williams Lake Trail Riders Arena is slated to have a new roof installed this spring after funding from the province’s Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program. (Greg Sabatino photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Trail Riders Arena, stable stalls, to get new roof at Stampede Grounds

Some of the stalls currently aren’t able to be rented out due to leaks in the roof

A sign is seen this past summer outside Yunesit’in Government office west of Williams Lake reminding visitors and members to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
Yunesit’in First Nation completes second round of vaccinations

A total of 26 people have since recovered from COVID-19 after having tested positive

A 100 Mile RCMP officer stands watch at the intersction of Highway 97 and Horse Lake Road. (Patrick Davies photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Volunteers, police search Highway 97 for articles related to high-speed chase

Search will stretch from Canco Gas Station in Lac La Hache to 150 Mile House.

An aerial photograph captures snowmobile tracks in the Cameron Ridge area earlier this year, which is closed to snowmobilers. The closures are in place to protect sensitive caribou herds. (Conservation Officer Service photo)
Snowmobilers fined for operating in closed caribou habitat near Likely, B.C.

The investigation revealed they had spent several hours in the closure leaving extensive tracks

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The City of Vancouver estimates there are 3,500 Canada geese in the city right now, and that number is growing. (Bruce Hogarth)
Help tame Vancouver’s Canada goose population by reporting nests: park officials

The city is asking residents to be on the lookout so staff can remove nests or addle eggs

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson (Office of the Chief Justice)
Judge questions whether B.C.’s top doctor appreciated right to religious freedom

Lawyer for province says Dr. Henry has outlined the reasons for her orders publicly

A sample of guns seized at the Pacific Highway border crossing from the U.S. into B.C. in 2014. Guns smuggled from the U.S. are used in criminal activity, often associated with drug gangs. (Canada Border Service Agency)
B.C. moves to seize vehicles transporting illegal firearms

Bill bans sale of imitation or BB guns to young people

BC Housing minister David Eby is concerned that Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter will result in a “tent city” similar to this one in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / Black Press file)
‘Disappointed and baffled’ B.C. housing minister warns of tent city in Penticton

Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter could create tent city, says David Eby

A recently published study out of UBC has found a link between life satisfaction levels and overall health. (Pixabay)
Satisfied with life? It’s likely you’re healthier for it: UBC study

UBC psychologists have found those more satisfied with their life have a 26% reduced risk of dying

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Federal panel recommends 4-month gap between COVID vaccine doses due to limited supply

The recommendation applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada

A vial of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a family doctor office, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Paris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP -Christophe Ena
Trudeau ‘optimistic’ that timeline for rollout of COVID vaccines can be accelerated

Canada set to receive more than 6M COVID-19 vaccine dose than initially expected, by end of March

Most Read