Meth crisis will strain PCs


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As he approaches the third anniversary of his electoral victory, Premier Brian Pallister has yet to experience his natural-disaster challenge.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/12/2018 (1634 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As he approaches the third anniversary of his electoral victory, Premier Brian Pallister has yet to experience his natural-disaster challenge.

In Manitoba, governments are often defined by the way they respond to natural disasters. And for good reason; forest fires, floods and droughts not only cause pain and suffering, they also serve as seismic disruptions of the government’s fiscal plans. Disasters require a substantial and immediate response from government. After all, lives are at stake.

However, while there have been no significant floods or fires, there is mounting evidence that a man-made disaster — the methamphetamine crisis — may soon challenge Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government as much as any natural disaster.

Premier Brian Pallister will likely have to stray from his fiscal plans in order to better tackle the growing meth crisis in Manitoba.
MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files Premier Brian Pallister will likely have to stray from his fiscal plans in order to better tackle the growing meth crisis in Manitoba.

Starting on Dec. 15 and continuing throughout this week, the Free Press is reporting in extraordinary detail the fiscal and human costs of the meth crisis. It is a heartbreaking and alarming documentary of scourge that grips this province.

Perhaps most importantly, it represents the first comprehensive accounting of all the ways in which meth will strain Pallister’s fiscal plans.

Addiction has always had a chronic demand on government resources. But according to our investigative series, there are a variety of characteristics that make meth a different kind of crisis.

It is very cheap, easily manufactured and imported and incredibly powerful. The effects of meth last longer and do more damage to the human body than just about any other narcotic. Meth addicts often descend into a debilitating psychosis that can manifest in violence.

Unlike other drugs, there is currently no drug or course of drugs that can effectively lessen the effect of meth.

What does that mean for a provincial government? Enormous increases in demand for almost every type of government service.

Earlier this year, the Free Press was the first to report on a 1,200 per cent increase in patients suffering from meth abuse presenting at city emergency rooms. As the province attempts an ambitious and controversial reorganization of Winnipeg hospitals — with emergency medicine concentrated in three facilities — meth is threatening to derail the project.

We also know that fire, paramedic and police services are increasingly engaged to help people who are in the throes of a meth meltdown. Calls for emergency medical treatment related to meth have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, in the past two years, the number of meth seizures has doubled, and since 2000, prosecutions have gone from just four to nearly 800 this year.

The costs to the provincial and municipal governments go even further.

The province has for some time now handed out free needles to addicts. The Free Press series showed that since 2015, the number of clean needles being provided has nearly quadrupled to two million. Despite those efforts, there is a new epidemic of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C and B, HIV and infectious syphilis, the last of which is at levels never before seen in Winnipeg. It costs tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat each one of these new cases.

Internal briefing notes released by the Opposition NDP last week show officials from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority warning their political masters about the potential for substantial increases in operating costs. They also put the government on notice that current treatment options are “not highly effective and difficult to access.”

How will this affect the Pallister government?

The premier is in the third year of a four-year mandate to contain annual increases in government expenditures. Since his first year in power, Pallister has fiercely clung to spending limits, even in priority services such as health and education. If Pallister provides the resources necessary to address this pressing crisis, it will change the course of his government’s fiscal plans.

The keyword in that last sentence is “if,” given that Pallister has yet to show a firm commitment to expand or enhance the services necessary to combat the meth scourge.

The province did open five clinics that provide drug therapy to addicts but they are not uniquely positioned to help hardcore meth users. Unfortunately, there is no drug you can give to a meth addict to immediately address symptoms — and anti-psychotic medications that have proven effective in some instances typically require extended in-patient supervision.

An opportunity to perhaps add to Manitoba’s capacity for addictions presented itself recently when the Tory government announced the creation of new centres of excellence for mental health. Rather than spread in-patient beds across all Winnipeg hospitals, they will be located at only three hospitals. However, the reorganization did not add to the number of beds.

The province needs massive investments in addictions treatment and counselling, front-line health care including EMS and ongoing social supports to help addicts escape the clutches of this virulent drug. A study on mental health and addictions concluded that Manitoba needs to boost its annual investment by $135 million, just to achieve the average amount spent by other provinces. Given that the analysis was done more than a year ago, that figure is likely out of date.

With the need for emergency investments in all aspects of a meth response, it is tough to see how the Pallister government is going to be able to keep the schedule of election pledges to balance the budget and cut the provincial sales tax.

But that is one of the realities when natural disasters hit. Governments typically do not stop to debate the need to respond, or even the types of responses necessary to protect people. It’s a life-or-death situation and government is compelled to act.

The premier should remember one indisputable truth: staying the fiscal course will most definitely mean not meeting the needs of the meth crisis — and that will mean a loss of life.

That is what happens when governments ignore disasters.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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