Canada's Prime Minister and Minister of Defence met with people on the front lines of B.C.'s overdose crisis on Friday, listening as they spoke candidly about the urgent need to scale up treatment options, the province's record death toll and the emotional impact it's had on first responders.
But while those who attended the meeting in the Downtown Eastside clinic said the visit by Justin Trudeau and Harjit Sajjan was appreciated and deeply meaningful, the Prime Minister offered no promises on specific requests, such as dedicated funding for, and reduced barriers to, heroin-assisted treatment.
Darwin Fisher, who represented the Insite supervised-injection site and Portland Hotel Society (PHS) at the roundtable, said it was incredibly heartening for such a meeting to take place, recalling that the previous Conservative government fought Insite all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
"To have the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister present at the table is really important, that acknowledgment of people in the Downtown Eastside and the work that gets done there," he said. "There was a lot said about the work that the people in the community do as front-line responders – the people who live in the community and have been providing front-line, life-saving response.
"To have the Prime Minister acknowledge the work PHS has done, as well as the work of other service providers, felt so good after what's been such a struggle."
It was the Prime Minister's second visit to the impoverished neighbourhood since January.
Among the 15 people in attendance at Friday's meeting were physicians, nurses, social workers, drug users and representatives from police, fire and paramedics. They spoke of the devastating toll of the overdose crisis in B.C.; Mr. Trudeau teared up when it was noted that the majority of those who have died were younger than the 45-year-old Prime Minister himself.
Numerous attendees spoke of the urgent need to expand access to injectable opioid treatments such as prescription heroin. Fewer than 100 people are currently on heroin-assisted treatment – all out of one clinic in the Downtown Eastside – with the major barrier to expansion being a lack of funding.
"It was raised by almost everyone as something we needed because there is poison circulating in the street," registered nurse Meaghan Thumath said, "and until we have a chance to disrupt that supply and get a clean, safe injectable option for folks, we'll keep throwing Band-Aids like naloxone at it. The feeling was we really needed a significant federal investment to support it."
When a Globe and Mail reporter later asked specifically about dedicated, federal funding for heroin-assisted treatment, the Prime Minister acknowledged generally the need for more front-line and medical supports.
Attendees also asked for removal of the requirement that pharmaceutical-grade heroin be accessed through Health Canada's Special Access Programme. Currently, physicians must submit an application for each prospective patient and, if approved, resubmit every six months.
Addiction physician Keith Ahamad said expanded heroin-assisted treatment is a more feasible way for drug users to avoid the toxic drug supply than drug legalization – which many are calling for but won't reasonably happen any time soon.
"He understands that the drug market is increasingly more toxic, and we let him know that we need to find innovative ways to take organize crime out of the equation," Dr. Ahamad said.
Attendees said the Prime Minister appeared caring and genuine and took notes throughout the meeting.
Speaking with media following the meeting, Mr. Trudeau said the overdose crisis "is nothing short of an absolute tragedy – especially here in B.C."
"The impacts have been devastating: families ripped apart, communities forever altered, loved ones lost too soon," he said.
A record 922 people died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. last year, with another 116 dying in January. The federal government last month announced $65-million over five years to respond to Canada's opioid crisis, with $10-million earmarked for B.C.