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Editorial: The opioid effect

Fentanyl is already responsible for hundreds of overdoses in Canada.
Deaths by fentanyl and other opioids are changing life expectancy in Canada. — Stock photo

The opioid crisis: write about it, and the reaction you get can be surprisingly cruel. Supposedly normal, ordinary people will respond with statements essentially saying those who are addicted deserve to die — and the sooner, the better.

Here’s a sample from a recent CBC story on fentanyl deaths: “Western society just gets dumber and dumber. Let the opioids do their job and weed these people out”; “Natural selection brought upon by themselves”; and, “It is sad, devastating and tragic but for a multitude of reasons individuals are making decisions to end their life and we should not continually put resources into trying to prevent that.”'

In other words, it’s something that could easily happen to you, or someone you love.

It’s the viewpoint, of course, of people who haven’t had the opioid crisis touch their lives, people who think that addicts are some sort of underclass that’s not deserving of help or support.

It’s an “us and them” attitude that probably wouldn’t be as popular if the identifiable group was something else. Imagine, for example, anyone saying: “The elderly use up a lot of our expensive health-care resources. They’ve had their time. Just let ’em die already.”

That’s a view unlikely to get much traction.

And yes, there are people who die from opioid overdoses who live in a world that’s far different from the mainstream; deaths in a world of misery and addiction others can barely comprehend.

But what’s startling about the opioid crisis is the number of cases that aren’t really us and them at all. (Even if us and them was somehow a legitimate measure of how far human compassion should extend.)

Teenagers who try a drug offered to them at a party and die as a result. Suburban neighbours who are prescribed opioids after back surgery or a car accident, and become unlikely chemical prisoners. Occasional users who buy what they think is one drug, and get something else instead.

In other words, it’s something that could easily happen to you, or someone you love.

And what’s only become clear now is that there have been so many opioid deaths in this country that a coming move to include those deaths in the overall life expectancy figures for Canadians is likely to reduce our combined life expectancy nation-wide. Roughly 4,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017, up from more than 3,000 in 2016. When those numbers are added into overall life expectancy calculations, the expected lifetime for Canadians born in 2017 — 82 years — is expected to stop its steady increase, and actually dip.

That’s exactly what happened in the United States when opioid deaths were added into statistics there.

The message is hard to ignore: the number of opioid deaths, along with the relative age of those dying from overdoes, is so significant that it will actually change averages for the entire Canadian population.

So, if that isn’t the definition of a crisis, what is?

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