Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions. (Province of BC / Flickr)

Burnaby and beyond: A BC committee report on toxic drugs maintains the status quo, advocates say

The select standing committee on health, activated by the BC government earlier this year, and its report has left advocates frustrated.

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November 7, 2022 | 5:00 am

The BC Legislature released its long-awaited committee report on the toxic drug crisis, but those most affected by the issue say its recommendations will only maintain a status quo that sees at least six people dying per day in the province.

The select standing committee on health was renewed by the government earlier this year following years of calls for its implementation to address the toxic drug crisis from the BC Green and BC Liberal parties.

But after hearing hundreds of in-person submissions and written submissions, advocates say the report is more reflective of the will of government than it is of the evidence.

BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau said the report is “a reflection of the political landscape of this [legislative] assembly.”

Karen Ward, an advocate for drug users in Vancouver, agreed and said that is evidenced by the government’s statements following the report’s release.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said in a written statement that the report “reaffirm[s] the tools our government is using to tackle the public-health emergency.”

According to the most recent figures released by the BC Coroners Service, at least 44 people had died in Burnaby from drug toxicity between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 this year. If that rate keeps up, the city could see a total of 66 deaths by the end of this year, fewer than the 78 deaths in 2021 but more than any other year previous to that.

And that’s a rate of more than 1.25 deaths per week.

A new open letter, signed by more than 50 individuals and organizations as of late Saturday afternoon, similarly condemns the report as an affirmation of the status quo.

“The result was another disappointment. While not every recommendation is flawed, the report obscures the issue of a poisonous drug supply, and recommends nothing outside of the status quo,” reads the letter.

“Collectively, we are disappointed that the provincial government asked an exhausted and grief-stricken population to provide free consultation on the overdose crisis in exchange for hope, just to continue on its current path. The current path will not save lives. The chief coroner will continue to announce tragic numbers of deaths by the poisoned supply.”

Ward said the result isn’t surprising after listening to the committee’s submissions and, in particular, the responses and questions from many of the elected officials in the committee.

“It’s just appalling how little of a fuck they collectively give, and it was so evident. Just no concern whatsoever,” she said.

“It was so evident to me in the way that they approached it, the questions they asked … the way that they defended their approach, in particular.”

And she said the committee’s paternalistic approach to the matter was evident when addressing non-prescriber models for providing a safe supply of drugs.

She said the report’s summary of things they were told about a non-prescriber model of a safe supply was accurate.

“And then you get to the discussion part, and the committee discussion and recommendations are like, ‘Yeah, fuck that. Reality? Not interesting, not relevant. Let’s just do more of the same,’” Ward said.

Advocates broadly agree that the conversation around safe supply needs to move beyond prescriber models, which they say have been slow and inadequate in their response.

In its report, the committee said there was “considerable debate,” including “broad recognition of the need to scale up the current approach to providing a safer supply of substances.”

“Members acknowledged that the current PSS [prescribed safer supply] policy does not provide protections for all populations, notably people who are not inclined to seek care through a healthcare professional, but that these individuals remain at high risk from the toxic drug supply,” the report reads.

“At the same time, members recognized the newness of the current approach and the need for continued assessment and evaluation, and grappled with their concerns about unintended consequences resulting from the rapid implementation of alternative models.”

The report noted that “for now,” committee members felt that a safe supply model required a health-care professional as an “important safeguard.”

“But … there should be consideration given to alternative models that may address the findings of the early evaluations and planned expansion of the PSS policy,” the report notes.

Ward asked: what is the goal of the government’s approach to the toxic drug crisis?

“It’s not to end it,” she said.

“If you overdose, we’ll save your life, but first you have to die.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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