KAMLOOPS — Am I the only one not surprised that the opioid crisis has worsened? Despite the widespread distribution of naloxone kits to save lives from fentanyl overdose. Despite increased prescriptions of methadone to treat addiction.
It’s all so predictable. The fuse to the opioid bomb was lit long ago.
I just finished reading Dan Malleck’s thoroughly researched book When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada's Drug Laws. He traces the opioid crisis that gripped young Canada at the turn of the twentieth century and led to the Opium Act of 1908.
As now, the problem wasn’t the “recreational” use of opium, but rather the prescribed and drug store concoctions of opium. Laudanum, a tincture of opium, was commonly found in medicine chests to treat toothaches and diarrhea, and as a cough suppressant.
Opium was, and still is, a powerful drug in a doctor’s medicine bag. It was especially useful to treat the illnesses of urbanization before the advent of antibiotics; diseases such as dysentery, cholera, and tuberculosis. Even today, nothing surpasses it as a pain killer.
As now, the crisis then was triggered by drugs other than opium. Cocaine had been introduced as a pain killer. The effect on users was startlingly different than that of opium and its sister morphine. The concept of “drug fiends” didn’t exist until cocaine came on the scene. Now the term easily applies to crystal meth addicts. Charles Heebner, Dean of the Ontario College of Pharmacy commented in 1906 that the public alarm over drug users was non-existent until “the Cocaine Monster came upon the arena . . . Cocaine proved to be a far more enslaving drug than opium or morphine (p.199 of Malleck’s book).”
The politics of the opium scare were quite different than the reality of the problem. Whereas the medical problem was opium addiction and the crazed effect of cocaine, the politics dwelt on the anti-Asian sentiment, especially in B.C.
Nineteen hundred and eight was a federal election year and Prime Minister Laurier was looking for his fourth majority in a row. In response to “race riots” in Vancouver, Laurier sent his minister of labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to Vancouver to investigate.
King found that Chinese workers had been brought to British Columbia to build the railway and there now 16,000 Chinese immigrants and their descendants who amounted to eight per cent of the population of B.C. White Canadians claimed they were taking jobs away. Chinese Canadians were demonized for leading good, white, Canadian women astray in “opium dens.” The Chinese were perfect scapegoats: too many, too shady. Laurier played the race card and was returned to power in 1908.
One hundred and eight years later, nothing much has changed. The opioid problem is characterized by sensational news coverage of ordinary Canadians, many of them in the prime of their lives, being killed in alarming numbers by overdosing on fentanyl.
However, the root of the problem is not the recreational use of opioids but the prescription of opioids by doctors.
And predictably, the more opioids that are prescribed, the more Canadians get hooked. The problem is compounded as users get habituated and require increased dosages for them to work. So they turn to multiple doctors to get them. Failing that, they turn to the streets and the deadly fentanyl.
The problem is not recent — it’s been going on for generations according to the Globe and Mail. “The problem is particularly challenging for new doctors who have inherited patients on high-dose opioids from a colleague who has retired.”
It feels like 1908 all over again.