B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon says the province’s supervised drug consumption sites have strayed too far from their purpose and, if elected, his government would overhaul the facilities to offer more medical supervision and ensure clients are better steered toward treatment.
Mr. Falcon made the comments in a phone interview with The Globe and Mail after he was questioned about statements one of his MLAs made last week during a local TV interview in Mandarin. Teresa Wat, who represents one of Richmond’s ridings, was asked by the host about these facilities and responded: “We are very against it, the so-called safe injection sites. All drugs are harmful to health.”
On Tuesday, after the ruling New Democratic Party began circulating a clip of this interaction, Ms. Wat publicly apologized for misspeaking, saying she unintentionally misrepresented the provincial Liberals’ new recovery-focused plan to stop the drug-poisoning crisis, which is killing roughly six people a day in British Columbia.
After Ms. Wat spoke to the press, Mr. Falcon told The Globe his party supports these sites, but too many of them do not have medical staff on site and are failing to connect their clients to recovery options.
“We’ve lost the plot,” he said. “The pitch to me was that there was going to be an equal focus on helping connect people to treatment and recovery services.”
As provincial health minister in 2010, Mr. Falcon criticized the federal Conservative government of Stephen Harper for its “ideological” fight to shut down Vancouver’s first supervised injection site, InSite, at the time urging his federal counterpart to study the science that proves this approach was successful.
Mr. Falcon, who volunteered handing out food in the Downtown Eastside as recently as two months ago, said he has not visited one of these facilities in about eight years. But, he said, he has heard from numerous people “who have knowledge of the issue” who are very concerned about the state of these sites, singling out ones in Prince George and Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society site run by Sarah Blyth.
He said he could not speak to those sites housed in hospitals, but many if not all of those in the community appear to be offering only “limited supervision of drug use without the focus on connection.”
Ms. Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society site, said Mr. Falcon has huge misconceptions about her and other supervised consumption sites. She said while there are no medical staff on her site, staff are trained regularly by the local health authority. A huge sign on the wall has a number for visitors to use the site’s phone to connect to treatment options, she added, at which point a supervisor will drive them to a centre.
“He really doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he hasn’t actually visited us,” she said.
Karen Ward, an analyst and advocate who used to advise the City of Vancouver on its drug policy, said it would be great to have a staff member at each of these 40 or so supervised consumption sites across the province to focus solely on connecting people to more care. But there isn’t the funding to do that, she said.
Even if people were being referred from these sites at a much greater rate, she said, there still are only 3,200 of these publicly funded recovery beds in a province beset by an epidemic.
If everyone who needed treatment agreed to go, “that would take six years for the lowest-ball estimate of how many people have an addiction,” she said.
The issue will remain political, with a provincial election slated for next year.
Ms. Wat said Tuesday she is upset the New Democrats are saying her party was misleading the public and spreading different messages to the Chinese-speaking community.
“In no way we are trying to say one thing to the Chinese community, even though Chinese is my mother tongue; I’m always part of the B.C. Liberal caucus and we always say the same message,” she told reporters in Victoria.
However, Ding Guo, a current-affairs commentator, said it’s not uncommon for politicians or parties to convey different messages in the Chinese community, especially in private.
“It’s both a temptation and a challenge for politicians,” Mr. Ding said. “Politicians want to express their partisan position but also want to let voters be happy.”
Mr. Ding said his community will continue finding it difficult to grow politically if it keeps receiving inconsistent messages from politicians. Members from the Chinese community should “clearly understand a party’s position on a topic.”
“They should not be misled,” Mr. Ding said.