CASTLEGAR — Decriminalization is key to providing proper support for people who use drugs, according to the mother and activist who gave the evening keynote at “The Fentanyl & Opioid Crisis in Our Community: Working Together to Make Change” conference held in Castlegar on Thursday.
Leslie McBain lost her only child, Jordan Miller, to an accidental opioid overdose when he was 25. She is a founding member of Moms Stop the Harm, a group of bereaved mothers who work for harm-reduction changes to drug policies at all levels of government, and the family engagement lead for the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU).
Decriminalizing the possession and use of illicit drugs in Canada is one of the priorities in a priorities document put out by the BCCSU Network of Family Members and Caregivers.
“What’s involved in this document is what we as families are asking of government,” she said.
“The last thing that we had asked for in these priorities is decriminalization of people who use and possess drugs,” she added, receiving applause from conference attendees.
The priorities also include implementing a provincial public awareness campaign to eliminate stigma, regulations and a monitoring system for all recovery centres, standardized and up-to-date drug safety messages, an online resource site, a more “timely and porous” communication system between service providers, an increased capacity to train all health care professionals who care for people with substance use disorders and concurrent mental disorders, increasing inclusion of and support for family or caregivers of people with substance use disorders, funding for and equitable access to the full range of evidence-based care delivery options, and an increased capacity for rapid access to evidence-based treatment.
You can read the full report, “Close to Home: Families & Caregivers Set Priorities for Addressing Substance Use Addiction in BC,” at bccsu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Close-To-Home.pdf.
Based on her own experience of losing a child with a substance use disorder, McBain said, “We need to keep them close. No matter what they do, no matter how irritating they are or how scary they are or how mischievous they are, or if they steal from us, or — it doesn’t matter — we have to keep them close.”
Following her keynote, McBain also sat on the closing panel, “How do we move forward in the midst of opioids?”
She reiterated the need for a commitment to a continuum of care.
“As my buddy and friend and boss Evan Woods [director of BCCSU] says, ‘It’s not that we have a broken system of care, we don’t have a system.’ So we can’t fix it, we need to rebuild it,” she said.
Sitting beside McBain on the panel was Sgt. Mike Wicentowich of the RCMP, who talked about what it’s like to be on the front line of enforcement.
“As a police officer, when you come out of training, things are pretty black and white — especially being a young, White male and that makes a big difference about your view on the world,” he said. “Things are very black and white: there are good people and there are bad people, and your job is to protect that thin line between them. But as you go along in your career, and you start meeting everybody, that’s the way I kind of feel is that crime and addiction know no boundaries. And as a police officer, you actually get to see different layers of society and how they’re affected by crime and addiction equally.”
During the Q&A following the panel, Wicentowich was also asked if he thought there was any value to arresting someone for drug use and he replied that he has very rarely ever arrested anyone just for drug use.
“Usually when there’s an arrest associated with drug use or possession, there’s more going on than just [drug use]. It does happen, but the value in it really does depend on the situation,” said Wicentowich. “Every single time you come across any crime, you really have to evaluate what’s going on.”
Next on the panel was Tammy McLean.
She’s a nursing instructor at Selkirk College, but she was on the panel to share the personal story of her mother’s struggle with an addiction to prescribed opioids.
“I know that in a very real way if addiction can happen to my mom it can happen to anyone,” she said. “One of my biggest lessons in all of this is that I work hard to see the person behind the addiction. Sometimes it’s really hard and I try to keep love in my heart to try and stay connected to her, even in small ways.”
Stigma was an issue addressed throughout the conference, and panellist Mike Laren, who has been in and out of recovery for over 20 years, shared what it’s like to experience that stigma.
“I kept doing the right thing for years, but no matter what I did to show that I wasn’t the person I was a few years back, I was still able to be discriminated against in what seemed to be all aspects of society,” said Laren.
He described losing work, being turned away from volunteer positions and being hospitalized for a kidney infection after being denied antibiotics three times at emergency.
“I got turned away and told I only wanted painkillers,” said Laren. “Four days later I had to be wheeled in on a gurney with an infection so bad it went into my bladder and other parts of my body.”
Laren was asked to speak on the panel by Castlegar city councillor Deb McIntosh, who is also co-ordinator for the local food bank.
McIntosh also sat on the panel and addressed stigma.
“Stigma is hard and it hurts, and it’s nasty and it’s unacceptable,” she said. “So as a community, I personally don’t know how to move forward and I really wanted to have this conference, a community conversation, so we could figure some things out. How do we collectively come together to make a place to make sure we’re all OK.”
McIntosh also recognized her fellow councillor Bruno Tassone, who attended the day’s conference.
During the Q&A, McIntosh was asked what role she could play as a city councillor in bringing a safe injection site to Castlegar.
She said that Castlegar city council hasn’t had that conversation yet, but that it was time they did have it.
“Councillors and mayors are really good at setting policy and fixing potholes — or not fixing potholes — but this is new territory for us. It’s not something that municipalities ever look at because it’s more of a provincial issue. But it’s moved past that. It’s now the core in our community, so I’m definitely willing to bring the conversation forward to find out what we can do.”
Tassone then stood up to say that educating elected officials is also important.
“The reason I’m here is because this is all new to me. The social aspect is all new. The potholes or a water main — I can tell you anything about it. I think the education for elected officials is very important, so that’s a step forward.”
Zak Matieschyn, a family nurse practitioner at the Castlegar and District Community Health Centre and the afternoon keynote speaker, was also on the panel and called for all hands on deck to address the opioid crisis.
“If we get all our best minds, every mind, on this case here, then sooner or later we’re going to come up with the solution,” he said.
Conference attendees were asked to indicate whether or not they’d be interested in continuing to work on a solution in Castlegar on the conference’s feedback form.
McIntosh said the original committee that planned the conference will soon get together for a debrief, take stock of everyone who indicated interest and to come up with a strategy to move forward.
If you weren’t able to attend the conference, but would still like to be involved moving forward, you can contact any of the original committee members:
• Alex Sherstobitoff, Rise Up community engagement project coordinator at ANKORS;
• Deb McIntosh, city councillor and coordinator for the Castlegar Community Harvest Food Bank and Drop-In Center;
• Zak Matieschyn, a family nurse practitioner at the Castlegar and District Community Health Centre;
• Lindsay Lazzarotto, nurse practitioner student;
• Tammy McLean, nursing practitioner and teacher at Selkirk College;
• Jenna Swanson, student nurse working with ANKORS;
• Marci Loukianoff, outreach support worker at the Castlegar Health Centre;
• Mandy Root, regional prevention coordinator for Freedom Quest Youth Services Society;
• Amanda Erickson from Child and Youth Mental Health in Castlegar;
• and Mike Laren, “voice for the people.”