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A tested supply of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is readied for distribution to drug users in Vancouver, on February 9.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

For months, Mike Stolte has watched the rapid deterioration of his neighbourhood in historic downtown Nelson, B.C., a decline precipitated by activities at a nearby provincial health facility that has become a hangout for drug users.

Every day, a group of up to 20 young people gathers at the Nelson Friendship Outreach Clubhouse, where mental health and addiction programs are available. But outside, people have been selling and using drugs.

When neighbours complained to the police, officers said their hands were effectively tied because of the province’s experiment with decriminalization. As of January, people are now allowed to carry small amounts of drugs and use them publicly in B.C. But Nelson residents are now stepping around needles and stepping over those who have passed out on city sidewalks.

“I’m a pretty liberal person who has been involved in compassionate programs for hospices and other entities,” Mr. Stolte told me. “So, I feel for anyone battling addictions. I was initially a fan of decriminalization but I think the longer we continue with this experiment, the more and more downtowns are going to cease to exist. Nobody will want to go near them.”

After experiencing four thefts at his home near the Clubhouse in the last two months – after not having any in the previous nine years that he’s lived in Nelson – Mr. Stolte told me he now keeps a baseball bat and bear spray at his front door. His neighbours have complained about drug users defecating in their yards. The police have been called hundreds of times in response to complaints.

This is now a common lament across B.C. Open drug use is plaguing many cities and towns. In Nelson, the provincial health department had been planning to turn the Clubhouse into a safe inhalation centre for drug users, but that initiative is on hold because of complaints from those living in the area. There has been talk of hiring a security firm to try and disperse people from hanging around the Clubhouse.

It’s been a nightmare for the quaint little city that was the setting for the 1986 Steve Martin film Roxanne.

A number of B.C. municipalities are now proposing bylaws to restrict public drug use, which has proliferated under decriminalization after it went into effect in January. The trial is scheduled to last for three years. But proposed laws that would restrict where drug use can take place are alarming health experts who believe this will force users into darker corners of society, where they can’t be saved if they overdose.

Still, broad swaths of the public are saying enough, especially when it comes to open drug use on beaches, in public parks or in downtown cores.

The B.C. approach stands in vivid contrast to what Alberta is doing on the drug addiction front. The United Conservative Party government has said it will not contemplate decriminalization or open drug use, instead focusing on treatment programs largely based on a much-heralded system introduced years ago in Portugal (although Portugal also decriminalized the possession of all illicit drugs).

Based on recommendations set out in a 2019 report by the Alberta Mental Health and Addiction Advisory Council, the province drastically expanded treatment spaces, which can now serve up to 29,000 people annually. It also eliminated a $40-a-day user fee for a publicly funded treatment bed.

It has aggressively pursued treatment strategies for users in correctional facilities, and special attention has been given to First Nations communities. Alberta has specifically rejected the safer supply model B.C. has adopted, which offers free pharmaceutical opioids as an alternative to potentially deadly drugs purchased on the street. Instead, Alberta has made addiction treatment drugs such as methadone and Suboxone more accessible.

While Alberta will not abide the type of widespread open drug use now being witnessed in B.C., the UCP government does not believe in throwing all drug users in jail, either. Instead, it favours steering someone who might otherwise go to prison for using drugs into a treatment program.

It’s likely too early to say which program has the greatest chance of success. In 2022, overdose deaths fell by 1.5 per cent in B.C., and 12 per cent in Alberta. But that’s before B.C.’s decriminalization experiment began. More time is needed to get a true picture.

The reality is, when it comes to dealing with the widespread scourge of drug addiction, we need to balance the needs of the individual with the broader needs of society. In many instances today, however, one side’s interests and needs are prevailing over the other’s.

And in B.C. right now, drug users are taking advantage of a provincial strategy that is designed to help them, but is hurting innocent others in the process.

Proponents of safe supply say it’s a way to curb the growing number of Canadians dying each year to a street drug supply saturated with dangerous substances such as fentanyl.

The Globe and Mail

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