New MPP Grad Reflects on Study in Decline of Quality of Drugs during COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo Credit: Amy Romer, BC Centre on Substance Use.

We interviewed Erica McAdam, MPP 2022 about recently published research work that began in Summer 2021 as part of her MPP Co-op work term. See Full Journal Article.

Your work with BC Centre on Substance use started as a summer co-op term in 2021. What led to your interest in working on issues related to drug use?

My desire to work in substance use policy arose out of several different life events, including participating in drug law classes in my undergrad education and reading Gabor Maté’s book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction”. At the time of writing, we are in year six of the catastrophic toxic drug supply crisis where over 26,690 people have lost their lives to preventable overdoses from January 2016 to September 2021. This devastating epidemic is not receiving the political attention that it deserves and a corresponding response from our government. These events have strongly contributed to my desire to work in drug policy and help contribute to the work of many advocates and researchers that have been working tirelessly to shape drug policy into something that is based on compassion and human rights. 

This is your first journal publication as a graduate student. What was your role in the study and what did you learn from the experience?

I was one of the co-authors of this study alongside Dr. Kora DeBeck and people with lived and living experience of substance use including Kali Sedgemore and Dean Wilson. I am so grateful to have been a part of this important research which contributed to my knowledge and learning in many different ways. A key takeaway from my work at the BC Centre on Substance Use and this research was the importance of including and uplifting the voices of people who use drugs. During this research, we spent a significant amount of time reaching out to community partners and people with lived experience to ensure that our interpretation of the data accurately captured the reality of their lived experiences. 

What impact are you hoping this study will have on policy-making in this area?

This study found that over a third of people who use drugs in Vancouver reported a decline in the quality of drugs during the COVID-19 pandemic and those individuals were also more likely to experience a recent non-fatal overdose. These findings provide empirical evidence that supports what people who use drugs have been saying since the start of the pandemic, which is that the drug supply has become more toxic. Importantly, this research has found that those who perceived a decline in the quality of drugs were more likely to regularly use stimulants – which highlights how the toxic drug supply crisis is not just affecting people who use opioids. These findings provide support for the policy intervention of a regulated safe supply – which involves providing pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to the toxic drug supply, in order to save lives. This intervention is urgently needed as overdose deaths continue to skyrocket. 

Now that you’ve completed your Master’s of Public Policy degree, what’s next?

It feels surreal that I am finished my Masters, and it’s been quite a journey to do this degree during a worldwide pandemic. I am continuing my work with Dr. Kora DeBeck at the BC Centre on Substance Use and look forward to completing a number of our ongoing projects together this summer. In the future, I wish to continue to work in substance use research and policy and hope to be able to continue my education and pursue a Ph.D.