A leading scholar of drug addiction says the “tragic” and “preventable” death of Dan Sealey — the stepson of local MLA and minister of agriculture Lana Popham — confirms the need for a policy shift.
“It underscores our discussion [regarding] concerns related to an unsafe drug supply and the need for decriminalization and legalization to prevent overdose deaths as a universal approach,” said Bernie Pauly, an associate professor in the UVic School of Nursing and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
Sealey, Popham’s step, died earlier this month of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 23. Key details of his death – including the drug that he consumed – remain unknown following a private gathering of friends and family Sunday in lieu of a funeral service.
Pauly said decriminalization of drugs for personal use as supported by organizations like the Canadian Public Health Association should be combined with scaled up harm reduction and treatment, as well as guaranteed annual incomes to address disparities in overdose deaths.
Pauly said the current provincial government has rapidly expanded harm reduction services through measures like the provincial naloxone program, overdose prevention and substitution programs among others.
“However, these services are not evenly implemented in all communities across the province relative to need,” she said. “Overdose prevention sites are often located in shelters and low income housing, so we need to think about reach across the population of people, who may be using substances and not accessing such locations.”
Another key issue concerns stigma, as it is important for people to feel safe to access services. “Decriminalization could contribute to reducing stigma as currently illegal drugs are also highly stigmatized,” she said.
Pauly said deaths like Sealey’s underscore that the current crisis is a public health issue (rather than a criminal one), and she agrees with the observation that Sealey’s death take the issue right into the provincial cabinet.
“We know drug overdoses impact so many families from so many different communities, and this tragedy has to stop,” she said.