From opium to opioids: A look at British Columbia’s illicit drug history

published on April 13, 2017 by Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press in CityNews

VANCOUVER – Hundreds of British Columbians have died from overdoses in recent months, but the powerful painkiller fentanyl isn’t the first drug to spark a crisis in the province. Here’s a look at British Columbia’s history with drugs:

1870s to 1900s:

British Columbia’s first troubles with illicit substances stemmed from racism, not public health concerns, says Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University.

Chinese workers brought opium with them when they came to build railways in the late 1800s. The substance was legal at the time, with Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster all home to opium smoking establishments in the 1870s.

But Dr. Thomas Kerr with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS says the program wasn’t ready when heroin faded from use, only to be replaced by powdered cocaine. Users who had been injecting once or twice a day now needed to inject between 20 and 30 times.

“The needle exchange was totally ill equipped to deal with this new and emerging drug trend,” Kerr says.

He says overdose deaths climbed to about 350 in the early 1990s and rates of HIV infection spiked. In 1997, Vancouver’s health authority declared a public health emergency.

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