The fentanyl epidemic is a social crisis, not a medical one according to Dr. Mark Tyndall, who spoke last week at an event organized by Nelson’s Fentanyl Task Force.
Tyndall is a provincial expert on the opioid overdose crisis who brings a background in the study of disease in controlled populations to his work crafting policy for the provincial government at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
Speaking to about 100 local residents at the Prestige Lakeside Resort last Thursday, he argued that the opioid overdose epidemic has been amplified by the way in which drug policy has been enforced across the province.
“For most people, they just need a house,” said Tyndall.
“That’s the best treatment. This is a social issue, not a medical one. The war on drugs: it doesn’t work.”
According to Tyndall, in 2012, four per cent of overdose fatalities across the province came back with fentanyl in their post-mortem toxicology reports. That number, Tyndall says, has jumped to 84 per cent in just five years.
He says it’s related to the expense of living in downtown Vancouver.
But though most of the research being conducted on the opioid crisis is being done by people like Tyndall in Vancouver, the problem is not one that exists in isolation.
Ten people have died due to fentanyl-related overdoses in the Kootenay Boundary region this year, a number that has risen from four deaths in 2016. And a conversation surrounding the possibility of using Nelson as a test site for medical studies on the impact of the fentanyl crisis in rural communities appears to have been started between Tyndall and city councillor Michael Dailly.
“We’re in the midst of a crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” said Chief Paul Burkart, who added that Nelson as a municipality has made a conscious decision to enforce provincial drug policy and the opioid crisis tactfully, and brought about seven representatives of the Nelson Police Department to hear Tyndall speak.
“We’re in desperation mode right now, we have to change the way we think.”
The way we think, Tyndall says, has driven the crisis.
He argued on Thursday that the media has turned drug users in social deviants and contributed to what he says is a “moral panic” by focusing on fentanyl and ignoring larger issues that are compounding the crisis like mental health, addiction and poverty.
According to Tyndall, users don’t care whether or not their drugs have fentanyl in them — they expect they will.
Tyndall offered a number of policy suggestions on Thursday to try to offer solutions to the crisis. These include providing access for users to controlled pharmaceutical opiates, pain management therapy, supervised consumption sites, addiction treatment, reforming drug laws, and increasing access to supportive services and counselling.
“These are people who are heavily traumatized — we haven’t dealt with their trauma,” said Tyndall.
“These are people who are living in poverty — we haven’t dealt with their poverty. They are homeless and unsupported and all of those drivers have led us to where we are now.”