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Addicted to Red Tape

Open a treatment centre? 'No' is the official habit.

By David Berner 19 Apr 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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[This is the last in a series of opinion pieces by Berner questioning Vancouver's commitment to drug treatment. Read the first two here and here.]

People have tried. But governments, one after another, year after year, have resisted. Drug treatment just isn't sexy.

I'll show you.

The Vancouver Sun newspaper reported recently that Victoria has one treatment bed for young crystal meth addicts. One.

A parents group called "From Grief to Action" has cried out publicly for several years now that there are no facilities for their addicted children. The home base of this group is Kerrisdale. For those who can afford it, the children are often sent to centres in America.

We are told repeatedly by the politicians that we enjoy in this province "Four Pillars" of response to the problem: harm reduction, enforcement, prevention and treatment. But it is abundantly clear to even the most rosy-eyed believer among us that what we have is one pillar and three match sticks. Harm reduction, in the form of safe injection sites, needle exchanges and free heroin programs, rule. Enforcement, prevention and treatment are given short shrift and even less money.

Thank God then for the entrepreneurial spirit.

Three very wealthy people have, in recent years, tried to launch treatment programs for young addicts in this province. They have put their own considerable financial resources behind their goals. They have put their money where their mouths are and where your mouth is and where the mouths of citizens are.

That's the good news.

Here's the bad news. Two have walked away, frustrated and empty-handed. The third has folded his tent and moved to another, more accommodating district.

The big brush off

The first man is a multi-millionaire. His project for a Vancouver-based treatment centre for upwards of one hundred addicted youth was taken off the table after several years of impossible negotiations with Vancouver City Hall. Now, I happen to know this fellow and this plan very well. While it's true that his project had some planning problems and inconsistencies in its original design, it was more than salvageable. Had city hall been a little more flexible, this program would be up and running today and serving Vancouver youth in an important way. Instead, the program is slowly finding its feet in Surrey.

Locking out the mayor

The second man is the mayor of Maple Ridge. His name is Gord Robson. He promised that, if he were elected, he would open, with his own money, a treatment program for five meth-addicted youth. On November 19, 2005, Mr. Robson became mayor and, true to his election promise (how rare is this?), two weeks later he tried to open a small house in Maple Ridge staffed with a clinical psychologist and four staff members. All paid for by Mr. Robson.

But before they could admit a single client, the letter arrived.

The letter came from the Fraser Health Authority and it advised all concerned that their little house was not licensed as a "Community Care Facility." The hallways were too narrow; the doors weren't equipped with emergency push bars.

Not wishing to begin his term in public office as a criminal, Mr. Robson closed the doors of his little house.

The third individual who tried to help is a woman. A very smart and a very rich woman. She examined the landscape thoroughly before she made her move. After considerable travel, research and study, she settled on a treatment model that has proven, over 40 years now, to be effective and affordable.

She went to Vancouver City Hall. And then she went to city hall again. Then she went again. And again. She was putting her own money on the table, her own persuasive energies.

When I had coffee with her a few weeks ago, she sighed and told me that it is over. She has moved on. The irritations of dealing with petty mandarins have driven her to seek bigger, greener pastures. Vancouver's young addicts lose again.

Technical hang ups

Now in these tales lie several issues. The first is how narrow is the view of regional health authorities and municipal planning committees that they cannot see past their petty rule books and see that their communities are drowning in the tears of parents begging for treatment options. They cannot or will not grasp the larger picture. We have an epidemic of drug problems. Someone is willing to help. What can we do to help the helper? Instead, they reach for the tape measures and building code bibles. Blindness.

You think this is theory or cant? A recovered addict has been running two recovery homes in South Vancouver. All of his resident clients are clean and sober. You might think he'd be given the key to the city. Instead, he had one of his homes shut down last year because it had an extra sink in the basement. He put ten people back on the street. Blindness.

The second issue is that the circle has been locked. At this point in our collective history, all of the social agencies, all of the levels of government, all of the hospitals, all of the invested parties have joined hands. They want mastery over these issues, they want control and they have it. After all, what if something goes wrong? The only problem is they are not doing anything recognizably useful. Victoria, the capital city of the province of British Columbia, has one bed for young meth addicts, one! The document known as The Vancouver Agreement, which every politico and his cousin will praise as if it is holy writ, has bound every bureaucrat in a dance of liasing, interfacing, conferencing and god know what social intercourse to no known end.

The treatment programs that I created 40 years ago right here in Vancouver could easily be repeated, but they could never be built in the same way. In those days, before the noose of inaction tightened, we simply opened houses, began businesses and started programs without asking permission. We did the right thing and dealt with the fallout afterwards. The result is a legacy of reversed lives, lives lived clean and sober and drug free. Today, we argue pointlessly about the merits of harm reduction initiatives like the safe injection site. Some believe this is enabling addicts to remain addicts. Others believe this is a reasonable first step, while we prepare the addict for treatment.

But it is a dead argument because there is no treatment.

Demand change

Some contend that treatment is the most expensive of the four pillars and that it is, quite simply, too expensive. And they are right if you believe in the medical model, if you believe that treatment centres are mini-hospitals staffed by doctors and nurses. Yet, anyone who knows the slightest thing about addiction recovery can show you over and over again that the best, the most effective treatment centres are those run by recovering addicts themselves! And these programs are cheap and affordable at any level of government. The very same monies that go into welfare and similar payments can be utilized, per person, to pay for this kind of meaningful and lasting recovery.

If, like the mayor of Vancouver, you believe that addicts and prostitutes are hopeless, then give them more drugs and keep them oppressed and stupid. Wrap yourself in flags, and, in an almost perverse form of passive-aggressive behavior, chain the addicted to their chemical wheelchairs.

If, on the other hand, you recognize that addicts are your children, your brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts, then, please, write your MLA, write your MP, write your city council member and demand treatment. Demand a new beginning, demand some political courage, demand hard-nosed compassion and old-fashioned common sense.

David Berner is a writer, actor and radio talk show host. You can read the first two parts of his series here and here.  [Tyee]

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