Liberal leadership candidates pitch plans to tackle drug poisoning crisis

By Shannon Waters January 31, 2022

After more British Columbians died of overdoses in the first 10 months of 2021 than in any year previously, Liberal leadership hopefuls say it’s time to handle the crisis differently, even as the NDP government insists its efforts were working prior to the pandemic.

At least 1,782 people died of overdoses through October 2021, according to the most recent coroner’s report — surpassing the record-breaking 1,765 overdose deaths reported in B.C. in 2020.

A provincial public health emergency was declared in 2016 in response to rising fatalities linked to illicit drugs. In 2017, the NDP campaigned on creating a standalone ministry, helmed by a minister “who gets up every single day focused on solving this problem and saving people’s lives.”

But B.C.’s annual overdose death toll has only risen since the NDP came to power — with the exception of 2019 when 983 overdose deaths were reported. Premier John Horgan has cited that year as proof his government’s efforts to address the crisis were effective before Covid arrived.

Still, critics and drug policy advocates say the government has been reluctant to act quickly or boldly enough to turn the tide on drug deaths, which now average six people per day in B.C.

“It’s time for us to get angry,” Liberal leadership hopeful Renee Merrifield told BC Today when asked what she thinks the B.C. government “needs to do differently” when it comes to the overdose crisis. As premier, the Liberal Party’s former health critic would create “a fulsome care system to treat, rehabilitate, heal and give dignity back to those that are mentally ill and addicted.”

Merrifield cited Portugal’s complex care system as a potential model for B.C. but did not note the country’s decades-old decriminalization of drugs.

Gavin Dew also articulated a need for a broad-based approach to the issue, citing the four pillars approach employed by Switzerland, which encompasses prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction (an approach the NDP government supports as well).

“We need to make sure everyone’s doing their part,” Dew said, suggesting the need for “better education and awareness programs around drug use” and “to drastically reduce the unacceptable wait times for rehab and recovery programs” while “getting to the root causes” of problematic substance use, such as “mental health, intergenerational trauma, and the breakdown of families.”

The youngest competitor in the race wants to “make life hell for the criminal drug gangs,” a sentiment echoed by Stan Sipos, who told BC Today “serious drug dealers should have manslaughter charges to deal with.”

Sipos would also require anyone experiencing an overdose to “have a mandatory 30-day stay” in a rehabilitation facility and “anyone who is a serial lawbreaker, addicted with mental health issues [would] be placed in a rehab centre without the ability to leave until healthy.” People leaving these centres would “be required to find employment or be given employment so that self-worth and confidence is gained,” per Sipos.

“People need to have hope, not just be housed in old sardine can housing and forgotten,” he said, in a dig at the NDP’s pandemic-prompted effort to temporarily house people experiencing homelessness in several cities with the goal of moving them into more suitable housing when available.

Michael Lee pledged to open more supervised consumption sites and open “other types of safe consumption sites where needed” — most places in B.C. focus on reducing the harms related to injectable drugs, rather than those usually ingested via inhalation or other methods — while removing “barriers to medical assistance” and adding “recovery treatment facilities.”

“What we’ve been doing in B.C. to help those who need it most isn’t working,” Lee said. “It’s time to support harm reduction with public safety and abundant treatment and recovery options.”

Val Litwin said B.C. has “lost track” of one of the four pillars of drug policy — prevention.

“I propose that B.C. put as much focus on the cause as we have the symptom,” he told BC Today, specifying the province needs “deeper mental health supports at the community level” and a “housing supply plan that helps catch vulnerable citizens before they fall onto the streets” — something the NDP’s recently announced complex care housing aims to do.

During the December leadership debate, candidates were asked what steps they would “take to fix [the] urgent emergency situation.” Ellis Ross cited a need for “community collaboration” and an individualized approach to substance use “because people are not programs, and no one size fits all.”

Referencing a recent visit to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Ross said “the RCMP were complaining that not enough of their recommendations were making it to the B.C. Legislature.”

“The RCMP need the tools — not to go after the user — but to go after the drug pusher,” he said. “That’s what we’ve got to address and at the same time, that will address crime and safety.”

“We need to make huge systemic changes,” Kevin Falcon said during the December debate. Falcon also cited a January 2021 op-ed, in which he called for a four pillars approach that would include “providing mandatory long-term treatment [and] housing” for “individuals suffering from the most severe mental health and addiction issues.”

“Not the deeply flawed institutionalization of the past, but rather a focus on mandatory treatment with re-entry into society as the objective,” he wrote.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson emphasized the voluntary nature of the new complex care initiative she announced earlier this month and noted that people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others can be involuntarily detained under the Mental Health Act.

While Malcolmson has stated her ministry’s focus has been “to build up voluntary treatment supports and harm reduction,” the NDP has backed involuntary hospitalization for youth who experience overdose. Bill 22, Mental Health Amendment Act, was abandoned after widespread outcry in 2020, but Horgan has vowed to bring it back.

No support for safe supply

One policy that many advocates and experts argue could have the most immediate impact on B.C.’s drug death toll was not mentioned by any of the candidates: safe supply.

Lee was the only candidate to mention the policy during the December debate, when he said the province needs a “continuum of care” — a phrase of which the NDP government is also fond — that “sees the need just beyond safe supply and harm reduction and housing.”

While B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe continues to advocate for a safe alternative to the toxic drug supply as a way to cut down on the dozens — sometimes hundreds — of overdose deaths her office investigates each month, safe supply is not an issue the official Opposition has taken up.

None of the party’s news releases in response to monthly overdose figures in 2021 mentioned safe supply. In statements and in the house, Mental Health and Addictions critic Trevor Halford has repeatedly criticized the NDP government on various aspects of its drug policy, but not safe supply.

Interim BC Liberal Leader Shirley Bond says the Liberals “recognize that there is a need to talk about safe supply.” (Facebook/Shirley Bond)

Asked whether the Liberal caucus supports safe supply, interim Liberal Leader Shirley Bond told BC Today the party has been “very consistent” in calling for drug policy centred on the four pillars.

“We recognize that there is a need to talk about safe supply, but let’s be clear, it is very difficult to know exactly what that looks like in British Columbia,” Bond said during a year-end interview. “There hasn’t been an ongoing discussion about what it looks like —  how does it work? What does it mean?”

“One of the things that I hear about all the time is that treatment and recovery do not get enough attention and we need to pay attention to that,” she added.

Bond said she and Halford had plans to talk with Lapointe about her calls for better access to safe supply in B.C.

“We understand that is an important part of solving this issue — we have questions about what it looks like in British Columbia and I think that’s fair.”