Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.
Right-leaning politicians, including Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, had a moment this past spring when their heated questioning about British Columbia’s drug policies prompted a rebuttal news conference by the province’s medical officer and a reminder by Premier David Eby that the safer supply program was one with broad support among B.C. politicians of all stripes as well as law enforcement.
But several moves over the past month indicate there are limits to the province’s willingness to explore novel solutions to the toxic drug crisis.
British Columbia became the first province, in 2020, to allow clinicians to prescribe regulated medications to take the place of street drugs. The safer supply program is not treatment but harm reduction and has the aim of giving health-care providers a chance to reduce or eliminate a patient’s reliance on unpredictably toxic street drugs.
In January, B.C. became the first province in the country to launch a three-year pilot project to decriminalize possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs such as fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. The aim was to lessen the stigma of addiction and help steer people toward health and social services.
In February, Globe reporter Mike Hager wrote about stores openly selling magic mushrooms and other illegal substances that were popping up in Vancouver, nine of them over two years, some along major thoroughfares. Constable Tania Visintin, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, said then they were not a priority for her force.
And for at least two years, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority contracted the Drug User Liberation Front for $200,000 each year for drug checking, overdose prevention training, and harm-reduction services. That’s despite DULF’s public intention to purchase illicit drugs from the dark web and test them before distributing them. Vancouver Coastal Health had said the health authority had no reason to believe the funding was being used improperly.
Last week, B.C.’s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe held a news conference to release the results of a panel of experts convened to examine further ways to combat the toxic drug supply. The panel recommended the province “immediately pursue” an expanded safer supply program, one that would increase the types of medications that can be prescribed and to remove the requirement for a prescription for people to participate.
But Lapointe was blindsided when a reporter made her aware that Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, had already rejected the idea.
“Non-prescription models for the delivery of pharmaceutical alternatives are not under consideration,” Whiteside said in a letter to the coroner.
Also last week, the Vancouver Police Department raided three magic mushroom facilities. Police arrested the owner and seized tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of psilocybin and other hallucinogenic products. Police said they have been so successful targeting traffickers of poisoned opioids and other deadly street drugs that the department was able to pivot to also tackling the sale of lower-priority psychedelics. No charges were laid and police said they were not directed to conduct the raids by any politician. At least one of the stores re-opened the next day.
Late last month, Vancouver Coastal Health’s contract with DULF was cancelled and later, police raided its facility.
“It’s unfortunate because they were providing essential life-saving work but they were also breaking the law, which we will not tolerate,” Eby said.
And at the start of October, the province amended its drug decriminalization policy, rolling back provisions that removed criminal penalties and police involvement for illicit drug use in many outdoor spaces.
“However, our compassion, our understanding that that system doesn’t work to address addiction issues does not mean that we need to tolerate public drug use in our communities, especially in areas used by kids – playgrounds, parks,” Eby said.
In the coming weeks, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry will release two reports, part of a review of the province’s safer supply program. Reporter Andrea Woo obtained a draft of one of them which showed that the clinicians surveyed by Henry’s office all agree the safer supply program is crucial. But many also expressed concerns about the program’s inability to meet the needs of drug users, that the program offers no exit from drug addiction for patients and that the province provides inadequate social supports. Some clinicians worried the very drugs they’re prescribing could fuel new cases of substance-use disorder and also that an overdose death could leave them liable.
Henry told Andrea her second report will examine a range of other safer-supply models including one that does not require clinicians to prescribe.
Eby’s government has clearly indicated that although B.C. doesn’t mind being the first in the country to try new things to combat the drug crisis, some proposals – including that one – are out of bounds.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief Mark Iype. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.