Addictions should be treated with the same urgency as wildfires

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The following op-ed by John Horgan, Leader of the Official Opposition originally appeared on CBC News

We lost 914 people to overdoses last year.

Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and partners were stolen away from those they loved.

We need to work together on this issue. Think of wildfires. We never wait to check the budget before putting the fires out. We get at it right away.

When we’re in crisis, we need to come together and we need to address that crisis as a community. I know all British Columbians share my disappointment that the government has been slow to get this issue under control.

Right now, emergency responders are stretched to the breaking point. The response to the fentanyl crisis has largely rested on their shoulders, and the shoulders of community members.

Without their heroic efforts, many more would have been lost.

Yet, nearly a year after the Christy Clark government branded the fentanyl crisis as a public health emergency, ambulances and naloxone remain one of the only responses available to stem the tide of deaths.

Those who died deserved better. And their families deserve answers about why more wasn’t done.

Even if this government had simply kept their own 2013 promise to open 500 beds by 2017, we’d be in a much better position to respond to the crisis.

Instead, barely half of those beds have been opened, and youth addictions spaces have actually dropped by 25 per cent.

That’s left many families alone to find hope for their loved ones. For some that means facing an expensive, fragmented system with little oversight and few quality controls, costing upwards of $10,000 a month.

Some parents of addicted children, desperate for help, have even resorted to having their children criminally charged, so that they can get priority access to the few available services.

When the public health emergency was declared last April, many hoped it would mean an immediate and substantial investment in mental health and addictions treatment.

That didn’t happen.

We need to do better. Our mental health and addiction system lacks both the resources and the structure to provide British Columbians the early intervention and community supports needed to prevent the onset of addiction.

We need an addiction treatment system that is up to the task of providing trauma-informed, evidence-based treatment to those who seek help, when they seek help. For some, that will mean maintenance treatment. Addiction treatment is essential to saving lives, preventing disability and reversing the trajectory of this epidemic.

We also need more harm reduction sites. These sites help prevent overdoses and reverse them when they happen. They also provide a gateway for people to seek treatment when they are ready. We know Insite saves lives. Let’s save more lives.

We also need to do a better job of understanding how our approach to prescription drugs has contributed to the fentanyl crisis. Cutting people off of pain medication without addressing their needs has driven many to the black market.

One thing we can all do to make a difference is work to reduce the stigma around mental health and addiction, so that more people are able to come forward and get help earlier.

I hope that if one light can come out of the fentanyl tragedy that struck down so many lives in 2016, it is greater understanding, compassion and openness to approaches to addiction that work.

Anything that we can do to help in this crisis, we’re prepared to do. Anything that we can do to accelerate action, we want to do.