The region’s chief medical officer made strongly worded recommendations to Nanaimo city council about the need for further action in the overdose crisis.
Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health medical officer for central Vancouver Island, presented a report to councillors Monday at a committee of the whole meeting at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre.
The doctor asked again for a new zoning bylaw not only for permanent supervised consumption, but also to facilitate other drug addiction treatment services in Nanaimo. He said council needs to support housing options and shouldn’t look at the drug issue just from a safety and security standpoint.
Hasselback presented the latest statistics – 51 overdose deaths in Nanaimo in 2017, bringing the total to 138 since 2013.
“We’re looking at a rate of fatalities that’s 10 times higher than just a few years ago. Nothing else is changing that quickly,” he said. “It’s gotten into the top five of our causes of death in our own community.”
While overdose deaths showed “some reduction” provincewide in the last few months of 2017, Hasselback said he can’t say that he saw the same reduction in Nanaimo.
He said 85 per cent of overdose deaths happen in private residences. Victims tend to be men between the ages of 20-60, using alone.
In May 2017, the city held a public hearing regarding rezoning the temporary supervised consumption site on Wesley Street to make it a permanent site. Council voted against allowing the bylaw to pass third reading. After that, Island Health tried to identify alternative locations but couldn’t find any.
“You need to look at this component,” said Hasselback on Monday. “Otherwise, nothing happens, and nothing happening is the worst-case scenario. That’s what we’ve seen for the last six months and that was a decision that was made here at council.”
Hasselback said city council needs to continue the dialogue, improve safety, limit substance use, prevent deaths, reduce fear and stigma and show compassion.
Coun. Jerry Hong pointed to some of the problems with needles in and around the downtown and Hasselback said if there are 1,000 drug users injecting three to six times per day, at all hours, “it’s not surprising that there’s some use happening in the community and we’re not going to change that until we change the ground rules under which things are operating right now.”
He said he thinks 98-99 per cent of needles are being returned or disposed of properly.
“It’s that small percentage that’s breaking through that is clearly causing significant angst. Unfortunately it’s not causing the same angst [that] 138 people … have died,” Hasselback said.
Coun. Bill Bestwick said the city needs financial resources to help address some of the issues.
“To me, there’s a considerable amount of download on every municipality, not just ours,” he said. “The province needs to step up to the plate and help us, because we sure need help, obviously.”
Coun. Gord Fuller said, as he has in the past, that he would prefer multiple locations for supervised consumption.
“I believe … that you locate these sites throughout the community and what better places than in the supportive housing and in the walk-in clinics?” Fuller said.
The notion of mobile safe consumption was also raised and Hasselback said he doesn’t think it works well in other locations in B.C. and doesn’t suit users in Nanaimo injecting three to six times per day.
“Before we ever have a conversation about mobile, we need to have a solid, stationary program [where] there’s dependability of a location,” he said.
Hasselback said he’s talked to drug users who are perturbed at finding their movement restricted and seeing additional security downtown and fences going up. If people are treated with humanity, the doctor said, then they can be part of the solution instead of feeling like solutions are being imposed on them.
“I think all of us would like the drug problem to go away. The reality is, these are humans, they’re individuals, they’re within our community and sometimes they’re not treated enough with a compassionate approach,” Hasselback said. “If we isolate and alienate those that are affected, you’re going to get some pushback and you see that.”
City councillors did not make any motion related to Hasselback’s recommendations.