Let’s say there was a strategy to help people addicted to drugs and alcohol live longer, better lives with fewer demands on the health-care system and less collateral crime, dysfunction and associated cost to taxpayers. You would expect governments at all levels, regardless of political stripe, to jump at the chance to implement that strategy, wouldn’t you?
You would, but in Manitoba you’d be wrong.
In the course of just a single week, Manitoba demonstrated how profoundly out of step it is with the rest of the country, and the world for that matter, when it comes to dealing with the ravages of drug and alcohol addiction.
First, we start with a proposal last week by the opposition NDP to establish safe-consumption sites for drug addicts. Faced with an epidemic of opioid-related deaths across Canada, Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said these sites are effective in eliminating overdose deaths, stopping the spread of infectious diseases and getting addicts closer to the medical and social services they need to curb their habits.
It was a compelling argument. Lamentably, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government did not rush to embrace the idea.
"We are not considering establishing a safe-injection site in Winnipeg as we have not seen evidence that it would be the most effective use of available funding to help those struggling with addiction in Manitoba," said Tory Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen.
While the province was quashing hopes for safe-consumption sites, some residents of Sturgeon Creek were railing against a city plan to convert the now-closed Vimy Arena into a 50-bed treatment centre for men with drug and alcohol addictions. The plan is to sell the shuttered arena to Manitoba Housing for $1, which would then lease it to a private, non-profit foundation.
Residents claim they are concerned the treatment centre would either eliminate or compromise surrounding recreational green space. They are also upset the city is going to sell the arena for just $1; a previous pledge to residents indicated that sales from the property, appraised at $1.4 million, would be re-invested in local recreational amenities.
Although a residents’ group opposing the project has tried to focus their comments on the green space, it seems fairly obvious they are equally if not more concerned about the idea of 50 addicts living in their midst. We know that because the treatment centre will not consume any additional green space than the existing arena, a reality that has not eased the concerns of the residents’ group. And because they have rallied behind Coun. Shawn Dobson, who represents the area and who has publicly called for the facility to be located away from residential areas.
In these dangerous times, with thousands of people across the country dying of drug overdoses, arguing against supervised-consumption sites and new treatment centres is the moral equivalent of arguing against the application of water on a raging house fire.
Outside of Manitoba, the approach has been much different, particularly when it comes to the issue of safe-consumption sites.
The federal Liberals have moved bullishly to reverse years of inaction by the former Conservative government to license new sites. Canada will soon have nearly two dozen safe-consumption facilities — both mobile and bricks-and-mortar — with Montreal and Toronto on the verge of opening three in each city.
These cities are rushing to embrace safe-consumption facilities because, well, they work.
Canada’s experience is not as extensive as it is in Europe, particularly countries like the Netherlands, which have been using safe-consumption sites for more than 30 years. However, even with Canada’s limited experience, the empirical argument in favour of safe-consumption sites is overwhelming.
Insite, Canada’s first such facility, was established in Vancouver in 2003. Largely because of a decade-long legal battle with the former Conservative government, Insite has been poked, prodded and studied extensively. The resulting data shows it is a winner.
Peer-led and reviewed studies of the impact of Insite on Vancouver’s downtown east side showed dramatic decreases in life-threatening overdoses, deaths and drug-related crime. Still other studies have shown that safe-consumption sites function as a "stepping stone" to treatment by putting chronic addicts in closer contact with counsellors and physicians.
It also deserves to be said that not a single person has ever died of an overdose while using Insite.
There is also a strong argument to be made that controlled consumption facilities are cost-effective.
A 2015 study by researchers at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital found that while it would cost $33 million over 20 years to maintain one such safe-consumption site, the health-care system would save nearly $43 million from a reduction in the number of HIV and hep C infections.
Based on all that work, and similar studies assessing the impact of safe-consumption sites in other countries, it’s hard to believe that Manitoba’s health minister really believes there is "no evidence that it would be the most effective use of available funding." In fact, it is probably the most effective use of existing funding to combat what many believe is a pandemic of drug overdoses.
Neither intensive treatment nor safe-consumption sites are a "cure" for addiction. But they among are the most effective ways of reducing the damage caused by drug and alcohol abuse, both to individuals and society on the whole. And certainly, they must be included in any strategy to combat addiction.
Why turn our backs on an effective strategy when we clearly have the knowledge and means? It’s a reminder that even when we can fight a raging house fire, some of us would just rather just watch it burn to the ground.
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.