Premier John Horgan said that the province’s overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are “two separate things” in his weekly afternoon media appearance on Thursday.
Responding to a question about the latest data which showed a record-breaking number of deaths for the month of June, Premier Horgan called COVID-19 “an insidious virus that infects anyone at any time” while referring to the opioid crisis as an issue of “choices.”
“I think they’re two completely different things. The fact that the numbers are similar is a coincidence, but I don’t believe there’s anything that we can learn from that.”
175 people died of opioid related overdoses across B.C. in June. Meanwhile COVID-19 has led to 189 deaths in B.C. throughout the entire pandemic.
Premier Horgan’s message stands in contrast to the June overdose report from the BC Coroner’s Service and earlier messaging from other government health officials.
“We know the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people who use drugs, as it has all British Columbians,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, BC Coroners Service.
“Access to key harm reduction services has been a challenge and our social networks are smaller.”
In June, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said closed borders have led to an unusually toxic supply of illegal drugs and are partly to blame for the spike in overdose deaths.
“Unemployment, social isolation, declining mental health and increased alcohol and substance use are also the reality for so many right now,” writes Darcy.
In a statement on Thursday, Darcy also wrote that overdose deaths were on the decline before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Prior to COVID-19, we were headed in the right direction, with overdose deaths decreased 36% year-over-year – the first time overdose deaths had gone down since 2012…Now because of COVID-19, the drug supply has become more toxic than ever before – with tragic consequences.”
The Premier reiterated his support for decriminalization of personal possession of drugs and called on the federal government to intervene on the legal components and to help implement a national plan.
He also added that while users of opioids should be recognized as “patients” rather than criminals, dealers are at the root of the issue and need to be dealt with through a legal framework.
“I don’t want people to step away from this and conclude that the opioid crisis is not founded on a criminal element. But if you’re addicted, you’re not a criminal, you’re someone who needs help.”