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Maxed Out: A song of suck and blow

'Far too often, the drugs supplied are not the drugs desired. There is no quality control, and the only way there will ever be quality control is if the government exercises that control.'

“You can’t suck and blow at the same time.”

-Unattributed proverb

Tell it to our political leaders.

Anyone who has paid attention to politics knows politicians try to suck and blow simultaneously with alarming frequency. They also misrepresent their positions to the point of lying, which the highest court in the land has said they can do with impunity, since no one in their right mind actually believes what politicians promise.

In 2016, the B.C. government declared illicit overdose deaths a public health emergency. Since then, more than 11,000 people have died from overdoses. Many of those deaths, likely most, have been caused by people using drugs they didn’t know they were using: fentanyl, carfentanil and other synthetic opioids instead of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, whatever.

Public health officials report the majority of those deaths involved occasional users, not addicts. In other words, the kind of folks you might see snorting a line in a local bar or with a glazed, happy look dancing like no one’s watching at a rave.

In January, B.C. instituted a new decriminalization policy that allows individuals over 18 to possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, meth and MDMA with no criminal penalties.

So it’s okay with our politicians if we possess that stuff. But it’s not okay if someone wants to ensure what we’re possessing is, in fact, what we hope it is, and not something that’s going to stop our hearts and leave our lifeless bodies for an overworked first responder to scrape up off the floor.

Ostensibly, the new policy is a three-year experiment to bring down the overdose death rate. But without a clean supply of drugs, the message becomes a classic suck-and-blow job: It’s okay to possess, but you have to roll the dice, buy on the street, and hope that coke you’re about to snort isn’t fentanyl.

Enter Langley’s Adastra Labs. Cue the outrage.

Last week, in a news release, Adastra said Health Canada had given it approval in mid-February to amend its controlled substance dealer’s licence. The cannabis company said the amendment granted it the right to possess, produce, sell and distribute cocaine. Specifically, it allowed the company to “interact”—whatever that means—with up to 250 grams of coke, and to import coca leaves from which it could synthesize the drug.

The resulting bright light you may have seen coming from Victoria was Premier David Eby and opposition leader Kevin Falcon setting their hair on fire. Eby was “astonished!” At a news conference last Thursday, puffing up his plan to increase funding for overdose prevention and mental health, he was shocked Health Canada would do such a thing without notifying and engaging the provincial government. “It is not part of our provincial plan,” he said.

True. The provincial plan seems completely mute on any effort to prevent overdose deaths by targeting the biggest cause of those deaths—tainted supply.

Not to be outdone, Liberal leader Falcon was quoted as saying, “Cocaine isn’t prescribed, it isn’t safe and this is wrong. Commercializing cocaine as a business opportunity amounts to legalizing cocaine trafficking.”

And wading in, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau characterized the whole event as a “misunderstanding” between Health Canada and Adastra, clarifying the company could only sell coke to other licence holders. Ostensibly for further research as opposed to office parties.

Adastra, in turn, walked back its press release, waffling as to exactly what the Health Canada amendment to its licence allowed or prohibited. This caused Eby to reiterate his position that, “Health Canada is not apparently in line with us ... We need to work together on the toxic drug crisis and our response to it.”

But, as they pitch on late night TV, there’s more. A Victoria company, Sunshine Earth Labs, issued its own news release saying Health Canada amended its licence to allow the production, sale and distribution of cocaine, opium and MDMA. In a statement that reeks of logic and understanding of the issue, the company said it “aims to bring safer supply of drugs to the global market.”

This may be a good point to say I am not advocating drug use. Not my circus, not my monkey. Or if you find that phrase offensive, I don’t have a dog in this race. I—and for that matter no one I’ve ever known—haven’t been sitting on the sidelines, rubbing my hands and saying, “Man, I can’t wait for them to legalize hard drugs so I can be a junkie.”

But the inescapable fact is people use this stuff. I’ve used some of it, but that was back in the day when penicillin cured just about anything you might pick up during casual sex and the worst thing you might find in coke was baby laxative.

That was then; this is now. People die in B.C. at the rate of about six a day from overdoses. As stated, most are casual users—recreational users looking for a good time, not their last time.

The government’s efforts to reduce overdose deaths is largely limited to allowing safe injection sites—very few—and distributing naloxone kits. How’s that working? The numbers speak for themselves.

The BC Centre for Disease Control reports a record 272,000 naloxone kits were shipped in 2020. Their mathematical modelling suggests naloxone averted more than 3,000 death events between January 2015 and March 2021. That’s 3,000 in six years. Compare that to the number of overdose deaths.

Even the Centre understands the current effort is insufficient. “Naloxone is not enough. It does save lives, but it’s only an afterthought, a Band-Aid solution. We have to focus on preventing overdoses, and the only solution is safer supply,” according to Dr. Jane Buxton, the Centre’s harm reduction lead.

So why is everyone in a position of power to affect the change needed going apeshit over someone in the private sector trying—in an admittedly small way—to do the one thing that needs to be done to begin to stem the tide of overdose deaths?

Cowardice? Hypocrisy?

VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, floated a plan to the provincial government a few months ago to provide safe drugs. The response was a flat no.

This is absurd. People are going to use drugs. Other people are going to supply drugs. Far too often, the drugs supplied are not the drugs desired. There is no quality control, and the only way there will ever be quality control is if the government exercises that control.

Ironically, governments recognized that role decades ago when they exercised control over the production, distribution and sale of alcohol. You don’t hear about too many people going blind or dying from bad booze anymore, eh?

Suck and blow... but grow up and face reality.