British Columbia

Health official criticizes Nanaimo council for inaction on opioid, homeless crisis

A Vancouver Island medical health officer urges removal of roadblocks to supervised drug consumption site in city with overdose death rates 50 per cent higher than the rest of the province.

'Obstacle' to life-saving service seen in city rezoning requirement for supervised consumption site

Dr. Paul Hasselback, the medical health officer for Central Vancouver Island, says the city of Nanaimo needs to do more to reduce opioid deaths. (Island Health)

Vancouver Island's health authority wants Nanaimo to do more to combat the overdose crisis in that city.

Dr. Paul Hasselback, the medical health officer for central Vancouver Island, presented Nanaimo's mayor and council with a report that called a local zoning bylaw an "obstacle to substance use treatment" in a city with an overdose death rate that is 50 per cent higher than the rest of the province.

Hasselback called for change to the bylaw that requires rezoning approval for supervised consumption sites, as well as liquor stores, drug rehab facilities and methadone clinics. 

Nanaimo currently has one overdose prevention site that provides clean injection supplies, naloxone and staff to reverse overdoses. Supervised consumption sites, on the other hand, also provide access to health and social services.

"Inaction is the worst-case scenario for the community and inaction would be not addressing the zoning bylaw," Hasselback told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

Nanaimo's city council previously rejected rezoning in 2017 for a fixed supervised consumption site on Wesley Street.

"I would certainly hope that they would see the light," Hasselback said. "It's just one step."

Modular supported housing rejected

Beyond creation of a first supervised consumption site in the city, Hasselback said additional sites are needed around the community. 

"It's all part of a whole continuum of help for both the community's safety as well as the people who are involved with these very, very dangerous drugs and addictions," he said.

The Island Health report also called on city officials to support efforts to increase housing availability and options.

One week earlier, Nanaimo council turned down a B.C. government-funded offer of 44 supported modular housing units for people at high risk of homelessness.

Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said he would like to see the bylaw overturned and for multiple fixed sites to be approved. However, he said, some councillors prefer a mobile safe consumption site over a fixed location.

Fentanyl has been a factor in many of B.C.'s overdose deaths. B.C.'s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, called 2017 the "most tragic year ever" for illicit drug overdoses. (CBC)

"We have to help these people understand that the current [overdose prevention] site has prevented about 40 deaths in the past year," McKay said.

"We now have to move from that point to providing these people with the help they need. And by not allowing the rezoning, we're preventing that from happening," he said. 

B.C.'s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, called 2017 the "most tragic year ever" for illicit drug overdoses.

In 2017, central Vancouver Island, which includes Nanaimo, had British Columbia's fourth-highest per capita rate of illicit drug overdoses, after Vancouver, the Okanagan and Fraser East, according to B.C. Coroners Service statistics.

With files from Sarah Towle and CBC Radio One's On the Island with Gregor Craigie.