As B.C. decriminalizes hard drugs, users still face months-long waits for treatment
As the provincial and federal addiction ministers outline more details about B.C.’s imminent decriminalization of illicit drugs, observers say there simply aren’t enough treatment resources for those looking for them.
The criticism comes amid a lack of basic information kept by the province, which has no idea how long people are waiting to access those recovery beds. Many of the beds also come with fees that are user-pay.
In a number she has often reiterated, Jennifer Whiteside told journalists that there are 3,200 treatment beds in the province, 360 of which were added by the NDP government after it took power in 2017.
“We'll be connecting people to all the resources that are available in that particular region,” said the provincial minister, referring to drug users encountered by law enforcement under the new regime. “Whether that's a detox bed, whether that’s a counselling service, they'll have access to the full range of supports.”
Those supports can come with a cost to patients. Fraser Health, for example, tells drug users looking for in-patient, live-in treatment of substance use disorder that the province subsidizes the care and that there is a “daily fee to clients, which may be covered in part by income assistance, employment insurance or other funding assistance programs, if the person qualifies.”
NO TRACKING OF WAIT TIMES
Waits for treatment are an ongoing complaint from those looking to recover from substance use disorder and there have been stories of people dying from toxic drugs while on a waitlist.
Drug policy analyst Karen Ward points out the province doesn’t actually track the waits between referral to a treatment centre and access to recovery services.
In the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction’s service plan published in February of 2022, it notes that data is not available for last year, and for the 2022/2023 fiscal year the target is to “establish data collection/measurement” with targets for subsequent years to be determined.
“How is it OK for the government that funds these services not to know this?” asked Ward.
When CTV News raised the issue with BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau, she remarked, “I have a friend who used to say 'How you do one thing is how you do everything,' and this government is very data-shy.”
CRITICS SLAM ‘PIECEMEAL’ APPROACH
The decriminalization of hard drugs has been under heavy criticism by some, but it was the New Democrats’ scattershot approach and insufficient treatment capacity that had them in the crosshairs of opposition parties.
“We have hundreds of people on waiting lists looking for treatment,” said Liberal shadow minister of mental health and addictions, Elenore Sturko.
Both in her recent past as a Surrey RCMP officer and in her current role as MLA, Sturko described deep frustration with accessing services, particularly in the wake of crises when people were willing to sign up for recovery programs.
“Yes, it's important to focus on lessening stigmatization so that people feel they can reach out for help, but it doesn't do any good to reach out for help if it's not available to you ,” she said.
Furstenau agreed, adding that what she describes as a “piecemeal approach” without a clear plan continues to see an average of six people a day dying from toxic drugs, and supports vary widely across the province with mental health and drug treatment centres unregulated in the province.
“Whenever I try to help a constituent, I'm told the waitlist is weeks or months or sometimes years long or that there's nothing available for me and if you're a youth it's even worse,” she said. “What used to be a social safety net is now a social safety high wire – you fall off and there's nothing there to catch you.”
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