Criticisms are mounting to a plan by Public Safety Minister Kris Austin to force some drug users into treatment against their will, with experts warning it could lead to more overdose deaths if implemented.
A group of 10 experts, including physicians, treatment workers and professors, has written an open letter saying forced treatment could lead to vicious withdrawal symptoms and decreased drug tolerance, leading to a higher chance of accidental overdoses once patients are released.
They also argue the proposal will alienate users from the health-care system because they'll fear being forced into treatment, leading to potentially fatal outcomes in emergency accidental overdose situations.
The group plans to gather signatures from others who agree with its message, and forward the letter and signatures to Austin and Premier Blaine Higgs on Monday, said Jamie Livingston, a co-author of the letter and associate professor of criminology at St. Mary's University in Halifax.
Jamie Livingston, associate professor of criminology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, says he's hoping Austin will back-pedal on his plan to see some drug users forced into treatment. (Submitted by Jamie Livingston)
"We don't see this as being a particularly useful strategy. It expands coercive powers of the state in ways that could be better … achieved through voluntary interventions and voluntary services," Livingston said.
"For years and years, people, advocates, frontline service providers have been asking the government to expand access to things like harm reduction services, affordable, safe housing, increasing income support … and those things haven't been produced by the government.
"In fact, they're closing detox centres and the waitlists are getting higher and harm reduction services aren't being scaled up."
Livingston said that as of Friday, about 200 people had signed the letter, including advocates, scholars and health-care providers from across Canada and internationally.
The letter includes citations for peer-reviewed articles casting doubt on the efficacy of forced treatment, including one published in June in the Canadian Journal of Addiction.
The article, titled Involuntary Treatment for Adult Nonoffenders With Substance Use Disorders?, found involuntary treatment suggests limited benefits, with voluntary treatment "consistently outperforming" it.
"Resources likely would be better directed towards expanding voluntary treatment options," authors Dr. Emily Cooley, Dr. Anees Bhaji and Dr. David Crockford say in the article's abstract.
Expert input unclear on Austin's plan
In an earlier interview with Austin, CBC News asked what he thought of experts' criticisms of involuntary treatment.
"All of these quote unquote experts that seem to think that things like incarceration, and you know, recovery facilities are not effective, what I would say is, you know what we're doing now is not effective — keeping people on the streets," Austin said.
"I mean, we're getting overdoses on the streets regularly."
Public Safety Minister Kris Austin hasn't said whether he's consulted any experts on his proposal to force drug users into treatment. (Aniekan Etuhube/CBC)
CBC News asked Austin's department if he could share information on experts he's consulted as part of his proposal, but Allan Dearing, a spokesperson for his department, said he wasn't available for an interview Friday.
Austin was asked earlier whether other jurisdictions had successfully run similar programs, and he said his department still had to do a "jurisdictional scan" to find out.
Quispamsis resident Emily Bodechon said she took issue with Austin's comments.
Quispamsis resident Emily Bodechon says advocates such as herself have called for expansions to voluntary treatment services to help people looking to recover. (Momsstoptheharm.com)
Her son battled with addiction for years before taking steps on his own to recover.
She signed the open letter because she doesn't think forced treatment would have worked in her son's case, and believes the proposal is misdirected.
"I feel like I agree with [Austin] that what we're doing isn't working ... because what we're doing right now is we don't have treatment options and we're just trying to hold back the dam by offering harm reduction," Bodechon said.
"It's not working because the problem is greater than what harm reduction can solve. So we need to have housing, we need to have supports for people living in poverty, we need to have better access to mental health."
CBC News asked the Department of Health about wait times for detox and residential rehabilitation programs. Spokesperson Sean Hatchard, in an email, said there are 79 detox beds across the province, with wait times varying between five and 27 days.
The province also funds, through the regional health authorities, 44 residential rehab beds throughout the province, with a plan to add another four by the end of October.
Those beds are housed at the Horizon Recovery Centre, Campbellton Addiction Services and Ridgewood Addiction Services. Programs allow clients to stay between 30 and 90 days, Hatchard said.
Average wait times for those centres range from six to eight months, he said.