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'We are struggling': B.C.'s municipalities plead for province to act on toxic drug crisis

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On a day that saw topics as diverse as housing, reconciliation and wildfires on the agenda, there was special attention paid to the toxic drug crisis by mayors, councillors and other stakeholders gathering to discuss major issues in British Columbia.

The "Opioid and Overdose Crisis" is the second of three special resolutions the Union of B.C. Municipalities will vote on at the annual convention this week and there was a full house at a policy session discussing decriminalization and harm reduction.

"We are struggling significantly and we need our provincial partners to come to the table because it’s just not something we can solve ourselves," said Cori Ramsay, moderator and Prince George city councillor. 

She said on a per capita basis, Prince George has more toxic drug deaths than Vancouver and revealed that her mother was among the provincial statistics.

"The expression, ‘the personal is political and the political is personal’ really comes into play here," said Ramsay. "This is an issue that’s impacted everyone across the province."

The special resolution, which will be voted on Wednesday, will determine whether UBCM delegates "ask the provincial government and health authorities to include funding and staff for security, clean-up, and social services at harm reduction locations and surrounding neighbourhoods." 

MINISTER ATTENDS EVENT

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson attended the session and highlighted conversations she's had with first responders who've found victims of drug poisoning in homes where roommates and family members had no idea they were using illicit substances.

Abbotsford's police chief spoke on behalf of the B.C. Chiefs of Police, outlining how much work and training and preparation it'll take the province's law enforcement agencies to prepare for decriminalization early next year.

"Will we see a reduction (in deaths and crimes) overnight? We won’t, but I do think if we do it right, we stay on course and really invest in health we can make a difference," said Mike Serr, a former Downtown Eastside beat cop and decriminalization advocate, in a one-on-one interview with CTV News.

He pointed out that B.C. has had de facto decriminalization for years since police haven't pursued those possessing small personal amounts of drugs, but was firm on the need to provide robust health and treatment services at the same time.

"This will not work unless we significantly increase our health resource," said Serr bluntly.

POWELL RIVER: A SMALL-TOWN CASE STUDY

One of the presentations at the harm reduction portion of the session came from Maggie Hathaway, a councillor from Powell River.

She told the audience that her community is second only to the Downtown Eastside in drug toxicity deaths in Vancouver Coastal Health, on a per capita basis. 

Among the measures they’ve taken to study the issue and prevent deaths, they instituted an overdose prevention site equipped with naloxone, and recently became Canada’s first rural community to begin an "injectable agonist therapy" clinic, providing synthetic drug substitutes.

Hathaway concluded that the program is considered a success story, and "the waitlist is full."

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