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Victoria harm reduction expert worries Horgan’s opioid committee goal may fall short

SOLID Outreach staffer says all-party committee must ensure continuity between governments
Premier John Horgan makes a point during question period in the B.C. legislature last month. He vowed March 9 to see an all-party committee created to research and recommend opioid policy solutions. (Hansard TV)

Any legislature-based committee created to study and recommend opioid crisis policy options must have safeguards to ensure continuity across successive governments, said a Victoria expert in harm reduction.

On March 9, the day the BC Coroners Service released a report stating that 6,007 people died from an overdose between 2017 and 2021 – more than motor vehicle crashes, murders, suicides, drownings and fire-related deaths combined – Premier John Horgan pledged to strike an all-party committee to investigate and make recommendations towards B.C.’s worsening opioid crisis.

“It will take more than just safe supply, harm reduction (and) treatment. It will take enforcement so that we can eliminate the scourge of people in our society who profit off putting people in boxes. All of us feel the same sentiment here. All of us want to work together,” Horgan said during question period in the legislature last week.

The key recommendations of the BC Coroners Service summary report were funding for a safe supply of publicly provided opioid drugs, and the decriminalization of substance use to ensure safe access.

READ ALSO: New Victoria recovery housing for young opioid users aims to reduce overdoses

Fred Cameron, a senior coordinator with Victoria harm reduction organization SOLID Outreach, said a committee with members from each party must prioritize opioid policy continuity for the future, given the policy changes that often come when new governments are elected.

He pointed to Alberta’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission as an example. The body was a national leader for drug harm reduction, but saw its funding stripped following a provincial election and change of government in 2015.

Cameron said the creation of B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in 2017, a year following the declaration of the opioid crisis, was more likely motivated by promises made to address it in that year’s provincial election as it was by its objective need, noting its apparent priority on administerial duties over tangible services that help British Columbians.

“We need to see continuity. So many of the things we are seeing (from the province) are approved in conversation, but we haven’t built the framework yet,” Cameron said. If a more robust safe supply program were put in place, for example, only to have its funding later removed, “the people who were relying on that assistance lost complete faith in the government.”

READ ALSO: Rallying moms; some dads, in Victoria to call for more action to reduce B.C. opioid deaths

BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau said her party and the B.C. Liberals have been requesting the NDP government form an all-party committee to deal with the opioid crisis for nearly a year. When the NDP returned to the idea in February, they proposed going without naming dedicated members to the all-party committee, which would have limited its accountability, she told Black Press Media in an email.

“MLA Shirley Bond and I pushed back against that and ensured that at the very least, committees had members named to it, which is the first step before setting the terms of reference and activating the committee … It is really critical that the work this committee does is public-facing and transparent,” she said.

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