PCs wilfully obtuse about harm reduction
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If there is a single issue on which Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has clung relentlessly to a position that seems rooted solely in ideology — despite being on the wrong side of expert information, public opinion and plain old common sense — surely it’s the question of how best to address this province’s expanding drug-addiction crisis.
Since taking office in 2016, the Tories have emphatically rebuffed all appeals for the establishment of supervised consumption sites (SCS), which have proven in other jurisdictions to be effective in mitigating overdose-related tragedies.
The entrenched PC position has been that harm-reduction measures such as SCS — which afford addicts a safer place to use drugs, in which immediate help is available in the event of an overdose — are at odds with the more traditional Tory notion that the only way to reduce drug-related casualties is to get people to stop using drugs.
The Stefanson government seems suddenly to have softened its position on SCS, however, in the wake of recent reporting by the Free Press that exposed apparent efforts by the PCs to block release of previously accessible data regarding overdose-related deaths.
In an op-ed commentary published this week, Mental Health and Community Wellness Minister Janice Morley-Lecomte suggested “forthcoming measures could open a new window … for licensed and regulated supervised-consumption sites.” That statement was followed by the introduction of Bill 33, the Addiction Services Act.
While the proposed legislation does create a path for the establishment of SCS in Manitoba, it could not be described as a clear one. Rather, it establishes strict and complex regulatory requirements that must be met by anyone seeking to provide supervised-consumption services.
While it’s true oversight is necessary, social-services advocates have criticized Bill 33 as more obstructive than productive. A joint statement from a coalition of front-line agencies declared that rather than opening the door to SCS, the bill “closes that door under the cover of regulation.”
If passed, the provisions in Bill 33 would take effect in January 2025 — a reality that prompted the Manitoba Health Coalition to suggest the Tories, who face a daunting provincial election this fall, are merely “kick(ing) the can down the road, and past the next election.”
It’s enough to lead one to believe the PC government hasn’t seriously changed its position on SCS at all. Ms. Morley-Lecomte’s op-ed lamented that harm-reduction advocates too often profess “supervised consumption sites are the ‘silver bullet,’” and that “a continuum of care is needed to help people overcome substance-use disorders.”
Here’s the thing: any good-faith examination would find those advocates consistently describe SCS as part of a necessary continuum that includes both harm-reduction measures and supports to help drug users seek treatment to escape their addictions.
Ms. Morley-Lecomte’s op-ed lamented that harm-reduction advocates too often profess “supervised consumption sites are the ‘silver bullet,’” and that “a continuum of care is needed to help people overcome substance-use disorders.”
Despite voluminous information suggesting otherwise — including on the Government of Canada website, which explains in detail the integrated approach of SCS services — Manitoba’s government seems anchored to the mistaken view these sites are the equivalent of drug dens.
During a visit to Winnipeg on Wednesday, federal Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett expressed concern about “misunderstanding” regarding the role of harm reduction in addictions care — a remark clearly aimed at Manitoba’s laggard attitude toward SCS.
“When you think of 40,000 overdoses being reversed in safe-consumption sites across the country, that those are lives that have been saved,” she said. “Unfortunately, some people don’t seem to be able to understand that the evidence is there: harm reduction saves lives.”
This province faces few public-health issues more grave than the addictions/overdose crisis. Manitobans deserve a response from their government that is correspondingly serious.