'Odd Squad' cops say prevention, not more harm reduction, needed for fentanyl crisis

“I don't support elements of harm reduction that are legalizers in sheep's clothing there,” says a retired police officer who served for many years on the Downtown Eastside. He's part of the Odd Squad, a group that works on drug abuse prevention.

Cops who work on drug abuse prevention with kids say it saves lives, money

Al Arsenault, a retired Vancouver police officer (left) and current officer Mark Steinkampf at Hastings and Main in the Downtown Eastside. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Al Arsenault and Mark Steinkampf have seen drug crises come and go over their long careers as police officers on the Downtown Eastside.

On a Friday walk through that neighbourhood, which some have called ground zero of the current fentanyl crisis, they see the human cost of a failure to prevent drug abuse.

"I would sooner put a lot of effort in before the bomb has gone off," Steinkampf said. "If you look here ... the bomb's gone off. This is the collateral damage of people who get involved in that lifestyle."

Arsenault and Steinkampf are with Odd Squad: a group of officers, retired officers and others who for years have reached out to kids with videos and presentations about the dangers of drug use.

Prevention is one of the "Four Pillars" strategies employed in Vancouver to tackle drug addiction, but Arsenault and Steinkampf say of the four pillars, prevention is both the most important and the most overlooked.

Take a walk through the Downtown Eastside with two members of the Odd Squad 1:14

'Legalizers in sheep's clothing'

When it comes to curbing drug addiction, Arsenault says there has been too much focus on harm reduction at the expense of prevention and long-term treatment.

"I don't support elements of harm reduction that are legalizers in sheep's clothing there," he said.

Arsenault says more resources should be going to the three other pillars: prevention in addition to enforcement and treatment.

But activist Wendy Pederson says it's not that simple.

"Understand there's other factors that are playing itself out in people's lives," she said. "It's not just a personal choice."

But as the discussion over the fentanyl crisis continues, Arsenault sees a shift in the polarized nature of the debate.

"Now, I sense there is a change in the tide, from just doing triage," he said, referring to harm reduction.

"Instead of doing that, why not say what's causing the bombs to go off? Putting money at the front end is more cost effective."

With files from Peter Scobie