Meth crisis has Manitoba families desperate amid absence of long-term supports

Some Manitoba families touched by the current meth crisis are so desperate for more long-term supports, mental health and harm reduction programing that they feel the only option left is to put meth-addicted loved ones behind bars to keep them safe from themselves.

CBC Asks town hall draws calls for supervised-injection sites, long-term detox and mental health care

CBC Asks: Breaking Meth heard from several affected parents. 4:33

Some Manitoba families touched by the current meth crisis are so desperate for more long-term supports, mental health and harm reduction programing that they feel the only realistic option left is to put meth-addicted loved ones behind bars to keep them safe from themselves.

That was one of the harsh messages that surfaced several times at a CBC Asks town hall Wednesday night dubbed, "Breaking Meth: What's needed to beat the crisis in Manitoba?"

Many said too much of the focus right now is on trying to contain the symptoms of meth addiction — including the at-times violent behaviour of those in the throes of meth-induced psychosis — when the problem needs to primarily be understood as a mental health issue.

"I've heard people say, 'We need to lock them up.' I feel that way too, she just cannot control this," Harvey Suski told the crowd of about 70 at Augustine United Church, referring to his daughter.

Suski's daughter has an eight-year-old who she can no longer care for. She is stuck in a cycle of meth addiction that swings wildly between extremes that include drug-induced psychotic episodes that make her a danger to herself, he said.

Watch Suski explain his daughter's addiction:

Harvey Suski spoke at CBC Asks: Breaking Meth about the meth addiction his daughter continues to struggle through, and the toll that it's taking on their family. 1:09

"We have people with mental health problems who we will lock up, who we say, 'We have to protect them from themselves,'" Suski said with a slight quiver to his voice. 

"But we don't do the same thing with people who can't protect themselves from drug problems, and the psychosis that's associated with that. That's my frustration."

Lori Chapman had to file for a protection order against her daughter, who like Suski's daughter has a young child she can't care for.

"I don't know if she's safe," she said."This is going to take a community to fight."

Her daughter is actively using meth, Chapman says, and has been assaulted while doing sex work to pay for drugs.

Chapman is at a loss for how to help her daughter in the absence of adequate long-term treatment options.

"What do we do? Lock them up? Yeah. That's the only way the separation is going to come. You can get rid of the meth, but you have to get the separation from them and the meth," she said.

"I really believe they have to almost have their rights stripped from them."

Watch Chapman explain her daughter's struggle:

Spoke at CBC Asks: Breaking Meth. 2:34

Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth said officers are struggling amid a wave of crystal meth that is destroying lives across the city.

"Some of the news that gets reported, many people may not even realize meth is associated to this story," he said. "We're not seeing any boundaries anymore."

In January 2018 alone, the amount of meth seized by police equalled half of all the meth confiscated in all of 2017, he said. Most of the production is associated with organized crime in Mexico, Smyth says, and the drug is now cheaper than crack cocaine.

Whereas Winnipeg has experienced spikes in cocaine and other illicit drug activity over the years, Smyth says it doesn't take that much meth to have a big impact.

Watch Shane open up about addiction:

He asked that his last name not be used, but shared his story at CBC Asks: Breaking Meth. 2:11

He said a meth high is prolonged — eight to 10 hours instead of under an hour for crack and cocaine — and does something uniquely troubling to users' mental state that is making policing a challenge.

"For the police where it becomes a challenge for us is where people get into that psychotic phase, that tweaking stage," Smyth said, adding the force has been training its members on how to de-escalate during encounters with people high on meth. 

"You're trying to even figure out if it is somebody on meth or if it's somebody that maybe has a mental health issue. It becomes difficult to interpret, you have to act swiftly, and it puts ... our officers in a position where they're trying to determine the right level of control."

Morberg House executive director Marion Willis said police are facing the same challenges as those running shelters and in health care.

"Emergency rooms are saying to us, 'We're no match for the aggression.' So while the police look at this and say there's definitely a health component to this, the health system is saying, 'Well this is a public safety issue, the police need to be involved.' So the ball is going back and forth, back and forth. Meanwhile there's no help."

She said one meaningful thing the Pallister government should do is invest in the Main Street Project and its desire to open a detox care site.

"They know how to do this, they have the infrastructure to do this, we need to get behind them and we need to try and convince the provincial government to fund them," Willis said.

Watch Willis' support for Main Street Project:

Spoke at CBC Asks: Breaking Meth. 2:29

Main Street Project recently proposed opening a safe injection site, as well as a 10-bed detox centre that would provide those in need with up to a year of care, along with complementary mental health programming.

Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen declined an invitation from CBC to attend the event. He has previously expressed skepticism over whether safe injection sites would work in Winnipeg.

"Safe consumption is a harm reduction method — it's not about encouraging drug use," said Main Street Project executive director Rick Lees, who cautioned that it is important not to make this a partisan issue and instead focus on helping those in need.

Many at the event including Suski said there needs to be a fundamental shift in how we approach meth addiction right now, one focused on mental health issues often at the core of addictions. 

Suski's daughter has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a personality disorder. He says she's been to an Addictions Foundation of Manitoba support centre and hospitalized five times since the fall, and each time she was released with nowhere to go.

"It requires intermediate and long-term help and assistance," he said. "We need that ... and if we don't get that, she's back on the street."

Watch a series of speakers at 'Breaking Meth': 

CBC Asks: Breaking Meth was held Wednesday, April 25. 3:32

With files from Bryce Hoye and Dana Hatherly