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Drug overdose deaths approaching 2,000 annually

Lee HardingDoes passive policing and harm reduction improve health and safety?

Vancouver is a living, breathing example to the contrary – or perhaps more like a dying, gasping person. In his film Vancouver is Dying, Aaron Gunn demonstrates the rot of addiction and criminality that is destroying one of Canada’s most beautiful cities – and why it’s probably about to get even worse.

The 55-minute Season 3 debut of Politics Explained was posted to YouTube on Oct. 5 and has since been seen by over 2.2 million people. Viewers are confronted with tent cities, skyrocketing crime, punchy anecdotes, and a compelling case on how harm reduction is really enabling harm.

“Harm reduction. Somebody’s got a sense of humour, man,” said a bystander on the city’s downtown east side. “Cuz that ain’t helping nobody, man. It’s helping everybody get high more.”

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Vancouver pioneered the approach by opening the first “safe” injection site, dubbed “Insite,” 20 years ago. What started with clean needles for heroin users has now become “safe” supplies of heroin itself.

Cody Hall spent 60 days in a recovery program for drug addiction until directed to government-sponsored housing. “They basically had offered me meth pipes, crack pipes, needles, and had sent me off to my room.” Ten minutes later, a resident from across the hall offered him free heroin, and so began a year-long relapse in the government drug house.

Eventually, Hall left, realizing, “I’m going to die in this situation.” The stats suggest his fears were well-founded, as half of the suspected Vancouver overdose deaths occur inside “supportive” housing.

Other addicts join the tent city crawling with people, an enclave that former policeman Curtis Robinson said was impossible in his day, but is much worse today. His service with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) ended in 2009, but he was there in the mid-90s when the soft approach crept in. Police “friendship” was quickly taken advantage of, and drug use began in bus stops and doorways because street people knew they could do so without hassle. After the city announced it would end sweeps of the neighbourhood, a tent city popped up overnight.

Current VPD union president Ralph Kaiser complained, “There’s no proactive policing at all,” thanks to city administration. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, the mayor and council slashed the police budget by $5.7 million, despite whites being a minority among members and even leadership in the force. The province restored the funding, but civic leadership and the justice system often make police work unrewarding.

“A lot of time, you go to a lot of work to catch a criminal. A lot of times, they are released,” Kaiser said. Catch-and-release isn’t working. Forty people were found responsible for more than 6,300 incidents of crime.

A recent survey by the Vancouver Board of Trade found that crime and public safety was the top issue identified by 44 percent of businesspeople. Italian restaurant owner Federico Fuoco said it’s the police who are handcuffed, and he’s had enough incidents to know that he can’t keep the doors and windows of his restaurant open during evenings anymore.

The tent cities remain until something so politically indefensible occurs that they must move on. The Oppenheimer Park tent city remained for two years until its so-called mayor was charged with murdering a 78-year-old woman. The city spent $3.5 million cleaning up the area after the tent city relocated to Strathcona.

Marshall Smith, a former political chief of staff who fell into addiction and homelessness, then returned to a productive life after five-and-a-half years on Vancouver streets, has said that drugs are responsible for 90 percent of the homelessness.

Drugs also feed crime. A group of recovered female addicts testified it was the primary way they fed their addiction. Cody Hall said retail theft by groups of addicts was a way of life during his final two years in bondage.

Commentator J.J. McCullough pointed out that Insite began in response to roughly 150 annual drug deaths, but now the deaths approach 2,000 annually. Yet, harm reduction now incorporates vending machines for drug paraphernalia. “It’s something so dumb that only an intellectual could believe,” McCullough said.

Gunn pointed out that in one recent 18-month span, drug deaths numbered 3,000 and Covid deaths just 1,800. No matter, Dr. Bonnie Henry is on the case. “Abstinence … does not work for opioid addiction because it is a chronic, relapsing brain disease,” she said.

That doesn’t ring true for David Pavlus, who has been helping addicts find freedom since founding the Last Door 35 years ago.

“It’s a lot easier than people think,” Pavlus said. “You get a bit of clean time and people come back to sanity, and they get that clarity. …Now they’re saying, well, abstinence puts you in danger of overdose.’ Using puts you in danger of overdose.”

A three-year moratorium on convictions for illicit drug possession in B.C. will begin Jan. 31, 2023, thanks to a special waiver from Ottawa. Gunn wonders how a drug problem will be solved with more drugs. So should we all. We will find out in a few short months.

Lee Harding is a research associate at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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