Sunday, March 11, 2007

More suffering not the answer for addicts

It's barely a kilometre from the legislature to Cormorant Street, but it might as well be a thousand miles.
The street is nothing special, just two blocks long, not far from Victoria's little Chinatown. The health ministry's head office is the biggest immediate landmark.
But it's famous. Cormorant Street is home to Victoria's needle exchange. It serves an astonishing number of people - some 2,000. Last year clients picked up more than one million needles.
Naturally, some of those clients are not people you want hanging around your neighbourhood. Rough, sickly, scary, loud, and aggressive, stealing and sleeping and going to the bathroom in doorways. There's not that many of them. But they make life miserable for people who live and work in the area.
Especially because the drug problem in Victoria is worse than it has ever been. Which is odd, since governments for at least a decade have talked about how seriously they take the problem of addiction and all the related ills. But all the time, things have gotten worse, a pretty serious failure.
One that should be worrying for Kelowna, Prince George, Trail, even smaller communities. Only a couple of years ago, no one would have predicted drugs would be creating such a street problem in Victoria - that sort of thing was reserved for the Downtown Eastside.
Now, there'- no reason not to assume that the problem will keep spreading.
AIDS Vancouver Island, which runs the needle exchange, knows something has to be done about the Cormorant Street problem. It announced plans to move the needle exchange at a press conference attended by police, downtown business representatives and city councillors.
But shuffling the problem off to another neighbourhood is no solution, everyone agrees. The people in Rock Bay, an older largely industrial and commercial area on the edge of downtown, are already nervous the needle exchange is heading their way. Understandably. They've already been remarkably tolerant as the prostitution stroll has moved into their area.
AIDS Vancouver Island has what seems like a sensible idea for dealing with the problems. It wants to find a building with an inner courtyard where clients can congregate without creating a problem on the street. It's also hoping for more space to deliver expanded counselling and support services.
The idea is that any point of contact with people with addictions is a chance to reduce the damage done, by helping them use drugs more safely, deal with their health problems and - if the time is right - to seek treatment.
But there's a catch. The move will cost money. So will operating the expanded centre. Plus there's the challenge to even find space.
And AIDS Vancouver Island is already facing a big cut in the money coming from the Vancouver Island Health Authority. VIHA has decided it needs to do a better job in AIDS prevention and support on the rest of Vancouver Island. It doesn't have any extra money, so its initial plan was to cut support for efforts in the Victoria area by almost 40 per cent. That's been put off for a year, but the axe is still poised to fall. It's difficult to fault the health authority, except for failing to make clear its financial problems. There is a growing demand for services and not enough money across the province.
And addiction services are often the first to be cut, mostly for political reasons. People waiting for knee surgeries have more clout than addicts.That's not just a VIHA issue. While health authorities across B.C. have been responsible for mental health and addictions, the services are routinely squeezed. They aren't a priority.
In that, the health authorities are following the province's lead. B.C. had a junior minister responsible for mental health and addiction services until 2005. The post was eliminated after the election.
The problem of addiction is an epidemic, which threatens people, families and communities across the province. But it's one we seem reluctant to do anything about.
Footnote: There's a persistent view that we just have to make life tougher for addicts and they'll stop. Addicts risk death, jab their bodies with dirty needles, sell themselves, sleep in the street, steal and get beat up routinely. That kind of misery is not enough to end the addiction.
No additional suffering will work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How about a "Safe Harbour" approach for addicts? Let's develop dormitory-style settings where each addict has their own room, and is provided with access to sanitary facilities, provided with food, and given basic health care. The government should supply drugs to the addicts, to remove a stimulus for property crime. Addicts should be given access to rehabilitation programs, but the primary purpose of the facilities should be to act as palliative care - no major medical interventions such as heart surgeries or liver transplants unless the addicts are on the road to overcoming their addictions. I think we can make a good case for exchanging the costs of crime & health care for the cost of basic care for addicts. However, there's got to be a quid pro quo: we'll take care of you, but you've got to make an effort to overcome the problem before you get any more than that.