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BC Politics

Drug Use Treatment Services to Expand as ‘Waitlists Have Become Death Lists’

Province announces funding for recovery, but critics say the prolonged toxic drug crisis needs more action.

Moira Wyton 13 Oct

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

The B.C. government says it will spend $132 million over the next three years to expand treatment and recovery services in the province, funding that comes from among the $500 million already allocated in the April budget.

The money will support services “at every step” of someone’s path to recovery, Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said outside St. Paul’s Hospital in Downtown Vancouver today.

Much-needed detox spaces, 195 new treatment beds, supportive housing and occupational therapy for people completing treatment will be established in every region of the province through the Ministry of Health and health authorities. Two new peer advisors will be hired at St. Paul’s alone.

“Our vision of a seamless and integrated system of mental health and addictions care is getting closer,” said Malcolmson as ambulance sirens wailed in the background on their way to the busy downtown hospital.

Mark Haggerty, a peer advisor at St. Paul’s, said having detox and treatment resources available when someone is ready to begin recovery is essential to ensure they don’t lose momentum.

“As someone with an addiction, when I needed help… and this is known, there’s a small opportunity to get that help,” said Haggerty, who has been in recovery for eight years. “If you have to wait too long, that opportunity is gone.”

Malcolmson and Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer Dr. Patricia Daly said this will be a major change in the province’s sixth year of the overdose public health emergency.

Nearly 3,000 people have died since January 2020. Last year was the most fatal year for toxic drug overdoses on record in the province, and 2021 continues to be terrible.

But expanding treatment and recovery services alone doesn’t address the root cause of deaths: a toxic and unpredictable criminalized drug supply.

Guy Felicella, a peer advisor at the BC Centre on Substance Use, noted there are “two separate crises”: failed addiction treatment and an illicit-drug poisoning crisis.

“And we need to do both, but really I would like to see the numbers of people dying each month go down. And I’d also like to see accessible services for people in addiction scaled up.”

Not everyone who is dying of poisoned drugs was addicted or had a substance use disorder, Felicella said. “It’s a toxic poisoned drugs crisis, and that needs to be addressed off the bat.”

The province has issued a directive expanding programs to provide users with safe, non-poisoned drugs, although critics have said it is too restrictive and narrow. And it does not include access to heroin.

Malcolmson said supplying heroin has not been ruled out and the province is working on creating a domestic supply.

She and Providence Health Care CEO Fiona Dalton also said neither the ministry nor a health authority had been involved in the decision to end the first of its kind take-home heroin program at Crosstown Clinic just two weeks after its start. Users are typically only allowed to consume heroin on site.

No reasons have been provided for the cancellation. “We’ll have more news on that as soon as we can,” said Malcolmson.

Felicella said issues like these demonstrate that safe supply needs to be provided outside the medical system, through approaches like compassion clubs. Vancouver city council has supported a compassion club’s request that the federal government allow it to distribute untainted cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

As the safe supply file inches ahead, Felicella says he is glad to see more people who do have substance use disorders get support.

Every day he gets calls from desperate people and their loved ones trying to find detox spaces or supportive housing after they finish treatment.

One man’s family recently had to pay more than $6,000 for the first week at a private detox facility for alcohol, after their son told Felicella he would surely die waiting the two to three weeks quoted at other public facilities.

“Waitlists have become death lists,” said Felicella. “People shouldn’t have to be desperate; they should be supported.”

Malcolmson sidestepped a question about how long waitlists are or whether the province will track waitlist lengths in the mental health and addiction care system as it does with surgeries.

New services, she said, will go where health authorities have already identified bottlenecks.

Felicella said anything that helps people get the care they want and stay close to their communities and support systems is a good thing.

But issues in the current system are still costing people their lives and precious time, he said.

“In an emergency with water gushing in, when will it be time to stop patching holes and just build a new boat?”  [Tyee]

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