The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on British Columbia’s drug overdose crisis has been well documented thus far, with over 1,000 people losing their lives to an increasingly toxic street drug supply so far this year.
More people have died by overdose in B.C. compared to the number of people who have lost their lives to the pandemic, raising alarm bells for residents in the province.
In an online poll conducted by Victoria Buzz, nearly 70 per cent of the 700+ respondents chose ‘Mental health, addiction, and the overdose crisis’ as one of their top priorities for the leaders of B.C.’s three main political parties to discuss ahead of the snap provincial election later this month.
While none of the three parties have released their full campaign platforms yet, past policies and statements, clips from announcements, and answers to questions at media briefings have enabled us to compile an understanding of where each party stands on policies surrounding mental health, addiction, and the overdose crisis.
John Horgan’s NDP party inherited the province’s public health emergency when he and the Green Party were elected in 2017.
The new government created the province’s first ever Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, with Minister Judy Darcy at the helm, to lead the response to the overdose crisis and manage the province’s mental health programs.
That Ministry had been working to create a virtual mental health counselling and referral service for post-secondary students—a program that was launched recently, in September.
To address the overdose crisis, the Ministry planned to add mental health and substance use workers to primary care teams and expand hours of primary care to expand access to treatment.
In terms of policy recommendations to mitigate the impacts of the overdose crisis, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry released a detailed report laying out why drug use needs to be decriminalized, and thereby de-stigmatized, so that drug-users are not afraid to seek help.
“While law enforcement in BC exercise their discretion when considering possession charges, such as the presence of harmful behaviour or identified need for treatment services, the application of the law is inconsistent across communities,” reads part of her report.
She endorsed reforming the province’s Police Act that would prioritize a harm-reduction approach taken by law enforcement towards drug users, rather than criminalizing them.
However, initially in 2019, this recommendation was rejected by NDP-appointed Solicitor General Mike Farnworth who cited federal laws on drug policy as reasons for why provincial actions would be moot.
In recent months however, with overdose deaths on the rise, incumbent Premier and NDP leader Horgan has called on the federal government to decriminalize the use of drugs, and also supported a call from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) to decriminalize personal possession of illicit drugs.
Dr. Henry’s recommendation to amend the Police Act was brought back on the table and Horgan said at a press conference that the province was in the process of reviewing it when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
In June, Mike Farnworth issued a statement announcing a review of the 45-year-old Police Act in an effort to modernize it.
Amidst the rise in overdose deaths, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has authorized doctors and nurses to offer prescription alternatives to street drugs as a way to wean people off of an increasingly toxic street drug supply.
Horgan has expressed his support for this public health order, the safe supply program, and Dr. Bonnie Henry’s expertise.
However the NDP has not yet come out with specific plans on the future of supporting the safe supply program, or any other mental health or substance use prevention or treatment programs.
BC Liberal Party
BC Liberal Party leader Andrew Wilkinson has focused on the issue of mental health and addiction through the lens of public safety and homelessness, criticizing the approach taken by the NDP government so far.
“In cities across B.C. people are getting fed up with growing street crime and the increase in violent incidents. We’re all appalled at hearing stories of people being chased, harassed, or attacked,” said Wilkinson in a statement on October 1.
“Mayors and local governments have come out to say John Horgan and the NDP’s plan of supporting permanent tent cities and warehousing those suffering from mental health and addictions issues without full wrap-around medical supports is failing society’s most vulnerable and it’s failing the people and small businesses impacted.”
In his campaign announcement, the BC Liberal leader says he plans to end tent cities in urban parks, adding that these encampments are where people suffering from “brain injuries, addictions, and untreated mental illness” have been left without supports by the NDP government.
On top of banning tent cities, Wilkinson says he plans to enforce a ban on roadside panhandling, and explore “alternative approaches to mental health and substance calls”.
This policy announcement came after he slammed the incumbent government for “warehousing” homeless people, meaning leaving people in tents or supportive housing without wraparound supports.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis on harm reduction, that’s fine, but the harm reduction that matters is reducing the number of deaths… We can do that through treatment programs, through prevention, through enforcement,” Wilkinson said in a televised debate back in 2018, where he claimed the Liberals could cut overdose fatalities by 50 per cent.
The Liberal stance on emphasizing ‘enforcement’ was repeated in the October 2020 announcement, when the Liberals’ statement said they would make sure courts, law enforcement, and first responders have all the tools to “keep everyone safe in our B.C. communities.”
It remains unclear whether Wilkinson is specifically in favour of or opposed to decriminalizing drug use, however.
At a press briefing on September 25, he noted that the criminal code elements of narcotic drugs are the jurisdiction of federal authorities.
“It’s fine to talk about decriminalizing, but that actually doesn’t do anything to get people off drugs, it doesn’t do anything to treat their addictions, it just changes whether they’re subject to criminal consequences,” Wilkinson said in response to a Victoria Buzz question.
He repeated this stance, and clarified where he stands on the safe supply program in response to another one of our questions on September 30.
“My medical experience teaches me that there are some people in our society who are going to require continued supply of clean, safe drugs for the rest of their lives, but that should not be our primary approach. We’ve got to provide prevention tools,” he said.
Wilkinson’s mantra continues to be “treat the causes and prevent the harm”, when it comes to mental health, addiction, and the overdose crisis.
However, like the NDP, the BC Liberal Party has not come out with any concrete policies on how they plan to do just that.
BC Green Party
Sonia Furstenau’s BC Green Party was quick to support the provincial health officer’s safe supply order when it came out.
“The opioid crisis in B.C. is first and foremost a health crisis, and therefore requires a health response from our provincial government and health officials,” she said in a statement on September 16.
“For years, advocates, academics, and medical professionals have been calling for accessible treatment, a safer drug supply, and voluntary, community-based support – available to people where they need it, when they are ready. It is heartening to see progress and concrete action on this front.”
The statement also included the party’s stance on decriminalizing drug use—a proposal they support unreservedly.
“The B.C. Green Caucus also believes we need to decriminalize illicit drug use and put an end to the heavy policing of those who need support,” said MLA Olsen.
“There are so many aspects in responding to the opioid crisis – all levels of government need to commit to working with health experts and community organizers, to ensure the system works and British Columbians can access the support they need.”
However when it comes to mental health supports, the BC NDP criticized the Green Party for voting against proposed mental health legislation that would have permitted officials to place youth with substance abuse issues involuntarily into care for a week.
NDP leader John Horgan also cited the Green Caucus’ refusal to support the bill as one of his reasons for calling a snap election in the first place.
The Green Party responded by stating that the bill was also opposed by the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Representative for Children and Youth and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and the Chief Coroner also voiced concerns over the proposal to detain youth involuntarily.
When Furstenau was asked about her position on the bill now, at a recent press briefing, she stood firm on the Green Party stance to create more voluntary treatment options for people in their communities.
“This is the wrong place that we should be starting to put our efforts. We need to ensure that there are mental health supports available to every person who needs that,” Furstenau said, going on to slam the NDP for not “acting with urgency” about a 10-month waitlist for children to receive counselling.
“If we want to talk about helping marginalized people, we need to talk about a government system that, at this moment, creates more harm.”
On the topic of supports for unhoused populations suffering from complex mental health and addiction issues, Furstenau says the Green Party supports the incumbent government and BC Housing’s measures to purchase hotels and announce new supportive housing units as a concrete measure.
“We absolutely need to be focused on a housing-first approach… The basic human dignity of having a place to sleep at night is something that should be paramount,” she added in response to our questions on the subject.
She further emphasized the need for wraparound supports for people combatting mental health and addiction, in addition to making more housing options available.
From the PHO and BC mayors
Much of the policies that we see surrounding the overdose crisis in B.C. have been implemented either directly or indirectly through recommendations by the provincial health officer appointed by the incumbent government, Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Henry recently issued the health order that allows nurses (and physicians) to prescribe drugs to replace the street drug supply.
The order will also expand the number of access points from which these medications can be dispensed to include health authorities and community pharmacies.
According to her, this order will remain in place regardless of the outcome of the provincial election this month.
“Obviously it helps when government is aligned, and… there was a ministerial directive to allow this to go on long term and I would hope that that would continue, but my orders would still stand,” said Henry in response to our question on October 1.
The safe supply policy is supported by an Urban Mayors’ Caucus that was convened in response to the snap election, and is comprised of 13 mayors across B.C. who have specific requests for party leaders.
“We’ve been taking our direction from medical experts in the province as well as federal health ministers who have all enabled safer supply here,” said Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart in response to our question on September 30.
“What we’re calling on is for this to be made permanent and also get regulatory agencies help get this rolling.”