Litter and bits of tin foil related to drug use found in downtown Nanaimo earlier this year. Photo submitted

Opinion: Safe consumption will require social licence

The state of our downtown is linked to efforts to combat our drug overdose crisis

As our community continues to address downtown disorder, it’s so important we get it right. For obvious reasons, but also some not-so-obvious reasons – the state of our downtown might be linked more closely than we think to efforts to combat our drug overdose crisis.

Of course we need our streets safe and clean and welcoming for tourism and business to thrive and for downtown to be a place any of us wish to live, work and enjoy ourselves. But cosmetic measures aren’t enough – there is social licence to be won or lost, and it’s ongoing: two steps forward, one step back; one step forward, two steps back.

The City of Nanaimo is planning to hold meetings with merchants and with downtown residents to talk about recently approved initiatives to try to help people experiencing homelessness and also those who live and work nearby and are most impacted by the problems on the streets. There will be talk about where to put garbage cans, portable toilets and needle boxes, and discussion about a daytime drop-in centre for homeless people and how that might work. But a question hovering below the surface, which may or may not get asked, is whether the city is doing enough.

There are now increased security patrols and needle sweeps and cleanup crews. These are measures for which downtown business owners – particularly those near the supervised consumption site on Wesley Street – have been pleading.

The topic of safe injection came up at last week’s City of Nanaimo public safety committee meeting. There was general acknowledgement that an attempt to revisit permanent supervised consumption at Wesley Street would meet the same fate it did a year ago.

“My sense was that the anger was not around watching people inject heroin – some people will object to that, of course – but the anger was then, when they’re in that building then they’re doing all these things [nearby],” said John Horn, city social planner. “My goal is to separate those things out.”

Even as the provincial government reports that opioid overdose rates are coming down, local authorities such as Island Health’s chief medical officer for central Vancouver Island, Dr. Paul Hasselback, and Nanaimo Fire Rescue chief Karen Fry say overdoses aren’t slowing here.

Hasselback came before city council a month and a half ago and delivered not only a report, but a scolding. The health authority wants permanent supervised consumption very badly and is meeting with the municipality once a week, said Horn.

Safe injection isn’t the be-all, end-all, of course. Hasselback’s report to council identified it as one facet of a 19-spoke “overdose response continuum.” Other levels of government are being called to action in a crisis, too, as well as other service providers. Any of us have a role to play in education, awareness, de-stigmatization and maybe at some point, acceptance of safe consumption in our backyards.

It’s an oversimplification to lump together all of the problems we see downtown. But they do overlap in certain ways, including this one. That’s part of what makes solutions so hard – steps forward are hard to come by as it is, and further steps can only come when our community is ready to grant that social licence.

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