NDP election platform pledges to meet the fentanyl crisis with a new ministry of mental health and addiction

The NDP’s plan is somewhat vague on the fentanyl crisis but gives greater prominence to the overdose epidemic than the platform put forward by the Liberals

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      The New Democrats' election platform, released last Thursday (April 13), includes some good points on the fentanyl crisis, according to a rival party's candidate.

      “The NDP talks about supporting first responders, and I think that is really important,” the B.C. Green’s Jonina Campbell, a candidate for New Westminster, said in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “But what I see missing here is support for the community.

      “There are grassroots initiatives that have come out of the overdose crisis because nobody else was stepping up,” Campbell explained. “These community volunteers are also tired…so what are we doing for the people who are on the ground, living this?”

      That’s a much kinder assessment than Campbell gave to the B.C. Liberals' election plan for the opioid crisis when it was released on April 10.

      “There just was not enough there to show that that is going to be a priority for them,” she told the Straight last week.

      Campbell said she wants both the Liberals and the NDP talking more about drug-overdose deaths.  She revealed that a lack of support for people struggling with an addiction is why she has entered politics.

      “I wasn’t planning on running for MLA, and then when my brother died, I thought: ‘Enough is enough,' " she explained. "People aren’t making this a priority, and the system is broken.

      “That is the one reason why I stepped up to run,” Campbell said.

      She recounted her brother’s long struggle with alcohol. Over the years, the Vernon man lost his job, his home, and then, one year ago this month, his life.

      Campbell described the NDP’s platform as giving greater prominence to the overdose epidemic than the Liberals.

      In the Liberals’ platform, the crisis is first referenced on page 103 of 129. It doesn’t receive a section of its own but is instead tucked into a two-page plan for mental health.

      In the NDP’s platform, the issue of addiction first appears on page 39. That section runs for five pages and gives the overdose epidemic two pages of its own. Its most significant proposal is to create a ministry of mental health and addictions. (Today, mental-health services are split between two ministries: the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Children and Family Development.)

      Since the last provincial election, in 2013, the number of overdose deaths in B.C. has climbed from 330 that year to 366 in 2014, 513 in 2015, and then to 922 deaths last year.

      The B.C. Liberal Party repeatedly refused to make any candidate available for an interview for this article.

      Selina Robinson is the NDP candidate for Coquitlam-Maillardville. In a phone interview, she added greater detail to the overdose-epidemic points discussed in her party’s platform.

      “We would certainly continue with harm reduction,” Robinson told the Straight.

      She added that an NDP government would look at what has worked in the City of Vancouver, where harm-reduction programs are most prolific, and strategize how to expand those initiatives to the suburbs.

      “What worries me is that while I think we have done a pretty decent job in the Downtown Eastside, making sure that people aren’t using alone, in the suburbs, where people do use alone, it’s awful,” she said. “It’s just awful.”

      In the Downtown Eastside, Crosstown Clinic sees patients given a prescribed dose of clean and regulated heroin, allowing them to leave the street life behind.
      Amanda Siebert

      In recent months, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson has repeatedly called for wider access to opioid-substitution treatment options. He’s asked for the provincial government to expand a small program in the Downtown Eastside that offers prescription heroin to a select group of long-time addicts. (The idea is that clean heroin regulated by the government is safer than street drugs that are likely contaminated with fentanyl.)

      Both Campbell and Robinson said their respective parties were open to that idea, provided it’s supported by scientific evidence.

      “The B.C. Greens would definitely be looking at sitting down and talking to the city about what is needed to deliver the supports that are needed,” Campbell said, “considering all options, as long as they are evidence-based.”

      Robinson similarly described an expansion of prescription heroin as worthy of consideration.

      “When you are in the middle of a crisis, all options need to be on the table,” she said. “We need to explore everything because people are dying. And so we need to be prepared to look at all of those options.”

      Robinson also has a personal connection to the overdose epidemic. For more than 20 years, she has worked as a family therapist and addictions counsellor.

      “I started out my career down at Robson Clinic doing alcohol and drug counselling when the crisis, at that time, was the AIDS crisis,” she recounted. “And here I am, all these years later, coming back and looking at what has not happened under this government and I’m appalled.”

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