Front-line workers say new B.C. legislative report into toxic drug crisis fails drug users

People carry a mock coffin to raise awareness and remember those who died from overdoses during a rally on Hastings Street organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drugs Users on Aug. 31. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
People carry a mock coffin to raise awareness and remember those who died from overdoses during a rally on Hastings Street organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drugs Users on Aug. 31. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Front-line workers say a new B.C. government report on the toxic drug crisis lacks any firm commitment to addressing the primary driver of thousands of deaths — a poisonous drug supply.

The 75-page report released Tuesday by the select standing committee on health, an all-party committee chaired by Vancouver–Hastings MLA Niki Sharma, looks at everything from B.C.'s proposed decriminalization to treatment beds.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said the report reaffirmed the "tools our government is using to tackle the public health emergency." At the same time, committee member and Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau released a statement Tuesday expressing dismay over the "timid" nature of the report.

Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident and former drug policy adviser with the City of Vancouver, said, in her view, the report reaffirmed that the government was letting the crisis — which has claimed 10,000 lives since 2016 — continue unabated.

"Our policy, as a society, is to let all these people die," she said.

"The minister responded in a statement, saying this reaffirms our approach. Actually, in that case — that is a condemnatory statement. Your actual policy is to let this continue."

No support for compassion clubs

The report says it heard from multiple drug user groups, as well as the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, which said the current toxic drug crisis would not be solved by prescribed safe supply alone.

"Until it's easier to find a doctor to prescribe than it is to find a dealer, we're going to continue to have this problem," said Ward, pointing to B.C.'s ongoing family doctor crisis as another reason why the model falls short.

The committee heard from advocates calling for support of peer-worker-led compassion clubs and alternative models of safe supply — something the City of Vancouver has done — but the report stops short of recommending the province do so.

Number of fatal drug overdoses per year in B.C.

The report says any such support would require a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).

Instead, it recommends the province consider trials for alternative models. Tyson Singh Kelsall, an outreach social worker in the Downtown Eastside and a PhD student at Simon Fraser University, said that recommendation shows a lack of political will.

"They've cowered away completely from any non-prescriber models," he said. "For people to make a safe supply accessible, it actually has to be a drug and a dose that people actually use."

Singh Kelsall said the government could launch a constitutional challenge of the CDSA if it wanted to support community groups at scale.

Deaths due to toxic drugs per month in B.C. in 2022

Funding to police for decriminalization

Ahead of the proposed decriminalization of possessing small amounts of illicit drugs next year, the report said the government would evaluate whether the threshold of 2.5 grams set by the federal government would work for drug users.

In addition, the report recommends the B.C. government "advocate for an increase in funding from the federal government to ensure that there is sufficient capacity for police to refer individuals who are not charged" to substance-use services.

Singh Kelsall said the recommendation set off alarm bells as it conflates addiction treatment with harm reduction.

"No matter how many people you treat, no matter how many people become abstinent from drug use, this supply will remain contaminated," he said. "Recreational users, people who don't want to quit, people who relapse, will always be at risk."

He also said he found the idea of further police funding "concerning," as research has found police have had a negative effect on harm reduction efforts.

Criticism over youth response

While a significant portion of the report looks at increasing B.C.'s "continuum of care" and addiction treatment services, one of the sections looks specifically at preventing drug overdoses among youth.

Recommendations range from increasing the number of school counsellors to ramping up education efforts, but Ward says the report falls short of concrete policy proposals.

"It's important to point out here … the [decriminalization] stuff explicitly excludes people under 18," she said.

Ward said it was "criminal" that the B.C. government has yet to allow youth-specific supervised consumption sites, as recommended by the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth in 2018.

Though Ward and Singh Kelsall noted the report came well short of addressing the scale of the toxic drug crisis, Ward said she was pleased to see a recommendation to provide sustained multi-year funding for peer groups, as well as another recommendation to regulate addiction treatment industries.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Following the release of the report, Singh Kelsall contributed to an open letter from peer workers to the B.C. government calling for more urgent action.

"I don't disagree that there should be massive investments in housing and other forms of care and mental health support," he said.

"But almost none of these things address the poisonous drug supply. And until we do that, the overdose crisis will continue."