Innovative Responses to BC’s Opioid Crisis

published on May 31, 2018 by Robin Brunet in Vancouver Foundation

No matter how much media attention it receives, the opioid crisis is still too frequently perceived as a problem plaguing the disadvantaged.

The British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) is trying to combat this dangerous misconception as it pursues its mission to support the development of an addiction system of care – the absence of which is contributing to the ongoing opioid overdose crisis. “The system of addiction treatment in BC isn’t broken, because there is no system,” says BCCSU Director Dr. Evan Wood. “At least, not one that is effective and equally accessible to all.”

This is compounded by the stigma associated with substance use. Marshall Smith, a senior advisor for the BCCSU working alongside Dr. Wood, explains why the stigmatizing perception of substance users is so persistent: “At one end of the spectrum you do indeed have those who are on the streets because they’ve reached rock bottom; and at the other end you have people wealthy enough to get the best treatment for their addictions.

“But 95 percent of the substance-using population consists of people in the middle: working professionals with careers and families. They can’t afford top-drawer treatment, and they don’t qualify for the public care those at the bottom receive – until they become so sick they lose everything.” As the huge gulf between the perception of people addicted to opioids and the reality implies, considerable community engagement must happen in order to bring about real change – which is why grants of $1 million and $224,000 from Vancouver Foundation to St. Paul’s Foundation (the fundraising arm of St. Paul’s Hospital, of which the BCCSU is a unit) were recently given for Dr. Wood’s organization to support not only drug checking and clinical trials, but also engagement with those who have first-hand experience with addiction and the treatment system.

“95 percent of the substance using population consists of people in the middle: working professionals with careers and families. —Marshall Smith, Senior Advisor, BCCSU

Specifically, the BCCSU hired three people to engage with three groups: peers and patients (people who use drugs); families and caregivers affected by addiction; and the recovery community. Smith is one of those leads. A former B.C. government bureaucrat, Smith became addicted to cocaine, eventually leaving him unemployed and living in a shipping container. Following recovery, he built a career in the addiction treatment field and engaged provincial and federal governments on addiction issues.

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