Ideology trumps evidence in Manitoba safe consumption site stance
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It’s surprising the provincial Tories are still clinging to the ideologically-driven position safe consumption sites for illegal drug use are not a good fit for Manitoba.
With former premier Brian Pallister no longer in the mix, the Progressive Conservatives had an opportunity to take a fresh, evidence-based look at a harm reduction tool that has been successful all over the world.
They instead continue to ignore a growing body of evidence that providing people with safe, supervised places to use drugs saves lives.
Pallister was the chief opponent of safe consumption sites in government when he was premier. He used the most inflammatory language to argue against them, including false claims they cause crime and attract drug dealers.
He softened his tone over time, as evidence grew the sites not only save lives but also help connect people with important public health services, including access to treatment. Instead of rejecting them outright, Pallister began saying safe consumption sites are “not a priority” and his government was more focused on treatment instead.
The problem with that position is the two are not mutually exclusive: governments can support harm reduction programs and fund treatment centres at the same time. That’s precisely what experts recommend.
One year after Pallister’s departure, the Tories’ message hasn’t changed. They continue to frame the issue as a choice between harm reduction or treatment. They also try to deliberately blur the lines between the two.
“The strongest harm reduction strategy is actually to encourage individuals off the drugs,” Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Sarah Guillemard said Wednesday, when asked about safe consumption sites.
Governments can support harm reduction programs and fund treatment centres at the same time. That’s precisely what experts recommend.
Encouraging people to get “off the drugs” isn’t harm reduction. The minister likely knows that. If she doesn’t, the calibre of decision making around the cabinet table may be worse than originally thought.
Among other goals and principles, harm reduction mitigates the negative impacts of drug use, including death and other serious health outcomes, without requiring people to stop using drugs as a precondition of support. It accepts some people are unwilling or incapable of getting clean and sober (or may need more time and support to get there) and provides them with public heath services in a non-judgmental environment.
The evidence from around the world, including from several provinces in Canada, shows that approach reduces fatal overdoses (including by screening drug supplies for toxic substances) and reduces the spread of infectious disease.
Meantime, the PC government led by Premier Heather Stefanson continues to reject it as an effective public health measure. Pallister may have been the driving force behind government opposition when he was premier, but it’s now clear his ideological bent is shared by others in cabinet.
The Stefanson government continues to claim Manitoba is not a good candidate for safe consumption sites, but refuses to say why.
Tory cabinet ministers have said in the past Manitoba’s drug problem is more centred around methamphetamine use, making it less suitable for safe consumption sites (which focus more on opioid drug use). The Tories have also said safe consumption sites would be less effective in Manitoba because drug use here is less geographically concentrated in a few areas.
All of those arguments have been debunked by public health experts.
What’s left is pure ideology: the Tories are morally opposed to funding public health programs that allow people to use illegal drugs in supervised settings. It doesn’t sit well with their world view.
Instead of taking a public health approach to a problem by applying proven strategies, the Tories are allowing ideological beliefs to guide decision making.
They twist themselves into pretzels to justify their position, sometimes using falsehoods or misleading comments to confuse the issue. But in the end, they are simply ideologically opposed to safe consumption sites, even in the face of strong evidence that they work.
That’s dangerous, especially at a time when fatal overdoses are reaching record levels in Manitoba. Instead of taking a public health approach to a problem by applying proven strategies, the Tories are allowing ideological beliefs to guide decision making.
That will cost lives.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.