I was shocked at first to find out that a meth lab had caught fire down the street from my home in Riverdale earlier this year. Then I remembered how much drug and alcohol abuse I have seen here since I was a kid. And how easy making meth appeared to be in the television series Breaking Bad. And how I had read coverage of Nobel prize winning economist Angus Deaton’s research on rampant drug abuse and its deadly impact on life expectancy in the United States.
Pierre Chauvin, the News’ crime reporter, told me the lab in question was too small to be a commercial operation. Breaking Bad’s Walter White would not have been impressed.
The real question is how many other meth labs are in Riverdale that haven’t yet caught fire and revealed themselves to the neighbours.
The number could be scary. North America is in the middle of a frightening new wave of drug abuse. Meth isn’t even the half of it. The Washington Post reported on the flood of cheap and potent Mexican heroin into middle America, documenting the Sinaloa cartel’s sophisticated “farm to arm” supply chain. Meanwhile, next door in B.C., the coroners service reported recently that illicit synthetic opioids like fentanyl were involved in more than 750 fatal drug overdoses in the first 11 months of this year.
US government data released last week highlighted the scale of the problem. More Americans died of drug overdoses last year than ever before, reported the Post. Heroin deaths were up 23 per cent, surpassing gun murders as a cause of death. Synthetic opioid deaths almost doubled. Prescription painkillers like Oxycontin killed even more people than synthetic opioids.
The trend is so big it is affecting demographics. The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics reported that average life expectancy actually went down this year in the US, the first time this has happened in ages. Heart disease and respiratory diseases contributed, but the category with the biggest increase was accidental death. This is the category that includes overdoses.
Angus Deaton, the economist mentioned above, published analysis showing the changes in life expectancy were the result of some trends that surprised many demographers. “The mortality rate for white men and women ages 45-54 with less than a college education increased markedly between 1999 and 2013, most likely because of problems with legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and suicide,” the Post summarized.
This broke the long-standing assumption that high risk groups tended to be the young, the elderly and minorities. Most demographic groups saw their death rates for those aged 45 to 54 fall from 1999-2013. Except for whites with no college education. Their death rate spiked.
The finding also provoked a firestorm of controversy, with other demographers pointing out that whites in this age group still had — even after the decline — better life expectancies than many other socio-economic groups.
Nonetheless, clearly something worrying is going on. Police in Ohio made global headlines when they posted a photo of a middle-aged couple they pulled over for erratic driving. The driver was barely conscious and the passenger was out cold. In the back seat was a worried looking four-year-old boy. More recently, four children in Calgary woke up to find their parents dead, apparently from an overdose.
We don’t really know why this is happening. Observers speculate about how cheap and easy to obtain these drugs are. Some point to gaps in health care coverage, which steer some people to cheaper illicit painkillers. Others link it to a broader social crisis in middle America, as jobs leave small towns and head for the big coastal cities or overseas. Some have even found correlations between overdose deaths and support for Donald Trump at the ballot box.
Canada and the Yukon have been somewhat sheltered from this epidemic, but don’t get complacent. You may remember the News’ report on how Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s medical officer of health, has launched an anti-fentanyl campaign.
You would probably be disturbed to find out how familiar doctors and nurses in our emergency room are with opioids.
There will be no easy solution to this problem. The drugs are simply too cheap and plentiful, whether opium from Mexico, fentanyl powder smuggled from China or locally produced product.
Hanley is right to call our attention to the problem. Our frontline health workers and police officers are already dealing with it every day. But they will need more than the usual levels of funding and political support. They will need more money, more people, more education, more treatment programs, more enforcement as well as more active coordination between agencies. Perhaps most importantly, it will also take more decision makers willing to take risks and try some non-traditional solutions.
This scourge is not going away. It is a test of the ability of our government agencies to adapt and respond to a major new challenge that is killing citizens, crippling families and adding another burden to our already stretched health care system.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist.