It isn’t the first time Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth has sounded the alarm bell over the city's meth crisis, nor questioned what government is doing about it.
Almost two years ago, Smyth warned methamphetamine use was fuelling crime and putting the community at risk. He said the problem was keeping him up at night.
In December, Smyth told a House of Commons health committee increased meth use was tying up police resources and causing a backlog in calls for service. In the WPS 2017 annual report, Smyth attributed a seven per cent rise in violent crime, and a nine per cent jump in property offences, to the growing use of meth.
He said police were doing their best to cope with the crisis but stated: "We can’t do this alone."
Unfortunately, the province has been slow to respond to Smyth’s call to action. Beyond commissioning a report to study mental health and addictions (Virgo report), and participating in a recent tri-level task force on illicit drugs, the Pallister government has only taken incremental steps to address the problem.
Manitoba has funded some additional treatment beds and opened new addictions walk-in clinics (although with limited hours), but there’s been no urgency to tackle the crisis in a significant way.
Which is why Smyth expressed the frustrations he did this week, when he sent a message to local police officers urging them to "hang in there."
"It’s just hard to tell right now if anyone in government is committed to the actions necessary to help our community recover," he said in the internal memo.
There are no silver bullet solutions to the illicit drug crisis gripping the city, but there are concrete steps the province could be taking — many of which are highlighted in the illicit drug task force report released last month.
The common theme in that report is there are gaps in getting treatment to addicts who require continuity of care.
Police and first responders often make contact with drug users in distress. But beyond stabilizing them and bringing them to an emergency department for further assessment, there are few options to connect them with long-term treatment, the report found.
There are public and private treatment services available, but there are delays in accessing them. Many don’t provide the sustained programming and follow-up necessary to help drug users recover, the task force report says.
"Substance-use treatment and support services in Manitoba are delivered through a fragmented and often siloed assortment of organizations and programs, where current approaches do not address gaps between acute detoxification and longer-term stabilization," the report says. "This results in an increased and inappropriate reliance on EMS, police and hospital resources."
There are specific recommendations that could address some of those shortcomings.
For example, the report cites a critical need for medical withdrawal and detoxification centres. Those services are provided at Health Sciences Centre but are geared to medical emergencies. More comprehensive services in the community that include counselling and transition programs are needed, the report says.
There’s also a need for community outreach programs — staffed by professionals such as nurses, social workers and on-call physicians — to provide drug users who make contact with first responders with immediate attention and follow-up programming.
The task force recommended the creation of 24-7 "safe spaces" for drug users as alternatives to being on the street, and to provide links to treatment options. It called on the province to expand the hours of the new rapid access to addictions medicine walk-in clinics (beyond what was recently announced). It urged government to consider partnering with existing private treatment facilities to expand capacity.
The Winnipeg Drug Treatment Court program has been a proven success in diverting non-violent offenders with drug addictions out of the criminal system and into recovery. But it hasn’t been expanded since 2015, despite growing demand. The task force recommends expanding its capacity, and its reach outside of Winnipeg.
Those and other recommendations are immediate steps government could take, but the political will has to be there to drive them.
So far, we haven’t seen that from the Pallister government.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.