Governments at all levels need radical change in how they deal with drug addiction/mental health/homelessness on the highway strip in downtown Duncan/North Cowichan, says a Cowichan business operator experiencing the problems on a daily basis.
“Everything they are doing now is not working,” says Travis Berthiaume, owner and manager of business properties on the TransCanada Highway. “In fact, what they are doing is making it worse. And, it’s not just here; it’s the same all over the province.”
Berthiaume says current policies are in fact killing some people and making it easier for school-aged kids to get started on drugs.
The frustrated businessman, who faces confrontation and/or threats from street people almost daily, says governments need to throw away their policy manuals and begin again from scratch. It is also essential to stop conflating mental health and addiction issues with homelessness. A lot of the people on the street are “not house able”.
Everyone, he says, are well-meaning but things on the highway strip are betting worse rather than better.
The first radical step the federal government must face is making a major entry into the provision of safe drugs and Berthiaume says that the government needs to be directly involved in the manufacture, distribution and retail dispensing of the popular street drugs such as heroine and cocaine.
“Providing safe drugs, on a widespread basis, will solve a lot of problems, including making a dent into the tragic growth in poisoned drug deaths,” Berthiaume said. “Having safe drugs available, priced below what the street is charging, would start crowding dealers out, along with the petty crimes currently going on now to pay for drugs. Street prostitution would be reduced.”
Access to safe drugs could be co-ordinated through health professionals with a renewable prescription, he said. At renewal time the person seeking the safe drugs would simply be offered access to treatment at the same time –offered, not required.
“People who are full-on addicted and need their drugs to merely function should have access to safe drugs at no cost,” he said.
Berthiaume maintains that this move would help remove the stigma associated with addiction, and a number of addicted people would be able to return to normal productive lives. They might even be able to re-establish family relationships that could become part of their support structure.
The junk available on the street now is cut with fentanyl to enhance the high and makes it more addictive..
The next radical change required, he said, is that treatment for mental health issues must actually be available and freely accessible.
“Just herding troubled people into ghettos isn’t really helping,” he said. “That just focusses and intensifies the impact on the local community.”
In addition to making treatment options widely available governments need to toughen the tools available to get seriously troubled people off the street and into treatment, Berthiaume says.
“If someone is a danger to themselves, or a danger to other people, they must be taken off the street and put where they can be helped,” he said. “Yes, there is a shortage of treatment spaces today and that needs to be dealt with. Blaming previous administrations isn’t going to resolve the shortage. It is time to rethink forcing people into treatment.”
Berthiaume says the same applies to addicts revived from so-called overdoses. “Those folks need treatment after they are revived, not a pat on the head and a caution to be careful with what they shoot-up, and then sent on their way to overdose again.”
There is also an immediate priority, he says, to increase enforcement on the street.
Bethiaume is calling for designating bylaw officers as “peace officers”, with real clout and authority. “They are already on the strip and about all they can do right now is jolly people along, hopefully to keep the street people moving.”
There is some limited access to government provided clean drugs, he said, but its not what the addicts want.
“They take what they get for free, sell it to kids on the street, and then go buy the drugs they want from dealers,” he said. “This is making it easier for kids to get hooked because it is so freely available on the street. I talk to these guys and they tell me what is going on.”
Berthiaume bluntly asks: “If your son or daughter experiments with drugs, do you want them going looking on the street with all the associated crime, or would you rather have them have access to clean and safe drugs. We are never going to win the war on drugs but, we can control a safe supply.”