British Columbia

As overdose numbers climb, B.C. drug advocates question role of addictions ministries

Advocates on behalf of people with substance use disorders in B.C. are questioning the role of the provincial and federal addictions ministries as hundreds continue to die from the poisoned drug supply.

Advocates say provincial Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions lacks power to tackle crisis

The roles of B.C. mental health and addictions minister Sheila Malcolmson, and her federal counterpart Carolyn Bennett, are being questioned by advocates as the number of overdose deaths continues to increase. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Drug advocates in B.C. are questioning the role of the provincial and federal addictions ministries as hundreds continue to die from the poisoned drug supply.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe revealed Tuesday that more than 1,500 people have died this year from overdoses, putting B.C. on track to eclipse last year's record high of 1,734.

The provincial mental health and addictions minister, Sheila Malcolmson, called the numbers "heartbreaking."

"Our government is committed to systematically changing how those experiencing addiction receive care," she said in a statement. "We will continue to build upon emergency-response services and community-based harm reduction services."


Malcolmson has been the face of the province's response to the drug poisoning crisis after she was appointed to her role last year. 

She recently announced the province's plans to apply for the decriminalization of the use of small amounts of illicit drugs and promised more addiction treatment beds.

However, Karen Ward, a drug policy consultant with the City of Vancouver, says Malcolmson's ministry has been inadequate so far in responding to the drug poisoning crisis.

"It's troubling because the ministry doesn't actually have any kind of a real budget to make these budgetary decisions or power to make necessary policy changes," Ward said. "This is still a public health emergency."

Mental health and addictions minister Sheila Malcolmson is seen with Premier John Horgan. Drug policy consultant Karen Ward says Malcolmson's ministry has been used to deflect criticism from other ministers in the provincial government. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Malcolmson's ministry was created four years ago when the B.C. NDP assumed power. She succeeded Judy Darcy in the role.

Ward said the ministry helped deflect criticism from Health Minister Adrian Dix and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, who also assume responsibility over the drug poisoning crisis.

"It's Farnworth's ministry that could be playing a role of a regulator here in combination with the health ministry," she said "And it is the premier ... they're using this [ministry of mental health and addictions] to not do anything."

Ward also says the ministry's focus on treating addiction will not help avert overdose deaths.

"Not everyone who dies is addicted," she said. "[Addiction is] not what's killing people. It's the drug supply that's killing people. Whether you're using once or using 10 times a day, it's still going to kill you."

Federal ministry's role also questioned

In addition to the province's federal application to decriminalize small drug possession, the City of Vancouver has also voted to support an application that would allow safe drug compassion clubs.

Though both applications are filed with the federal regulator, Health Canada, the newly-created federal Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions has also been tasked with developing a strategy to end the overdose crisis.

Carolyn Bennett is the first minister to assume the portfolio, having been appointed to her role two weeks ago when the prime minister's post-election cabinet was announced.

Federal mental health and addictions minister Carolyn Bennett and a family member arrive for the cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall. It is unclear what role her ministry plays in curbing the drug poisoning crisis. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Leslie McBain, founder of drug advocacy group Moms Stop The Harm, said she was skeptical when the ministry was first announced.

"I hope that this ministry actually has some agency," she told All Points West host Robyn Burns on Oct. 26. "The prime minister has said he is not ready to make any moves on decriminalization. Safe supply has been sort of rolled out in small pilot projects. We hope that there's more action, more policy, more funding for these things."

The powers of the federal ministry are still unclear, with Bennett's post-appointment interviews focusing on the "mental health" part of her portfolio.

Ward said the federal government should have responded to B.C.'s applications for safe supply and decriminalization as soon as they assumed office if they were serious about the drug poisoning crisis.

"We are throwing away suffering people to die literally every day. It is a huge indictment of our entire society," she said.

"This is a social crisis and it means that we need to fundamentally change."

With files from All Points West