British Columbia

Drug users and health workers question government-issued merchandise in Stop Overdose campaign

Drug users and a harm reduction nurse are criticizing the province for handing out merchandise that included tea bags and flower seeds meant to spark "courageous conversations."

The items were sent as thank-you gifts to participants in a peer focus group of substance users

Merchandise given out by the B.C. government as part of its Stop Overdose B.C. campaign includes tea bags labeled "Have Courageous Conversations," as well as flower seed packages and branded tote bags. (Corey Ranger)

Drug users and a harm reduction nurse are criticizing the province for merchandise it gave out as part of its Stop Overdose B.C. campaign.

A nurse with Victoria's AIDS Vancouver Island took photographs of flower seeds, tote bags, and a branded pouch containing a tea bag.

The items were delivered to some members of the drug user and harm reduction frontline community, and its packaging encouraged "courageous conversations" about overdoses and stigma against substance users.

"I thought this must be some kind of joke," said Corey Ranger, clinical nurse lead of the Safe Supply Project at AIDS Vancouver Island. "I was immediately appalled and really distraught that this is where our time and energy and resources were being allocated."

"It's so out of touch and so inappropriate — we are currently seeing 6.5 British Columbians dying every single day by toxic drug supply, and we're talking about courageous conversations?"

B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, was not available for an interview Wednesday.

Her ministry's Stop Overdose B.C. website states that "courageous conversations" about substance use, when done without blame, can "save a life."

For Karen Ward, a City of Vancouver drug policy advisor and substance user, the message is out of touch.

She said the province needs to change laws around illicit drugs if it wants to the end the crisis that's claimed thousands of lives, and only worsened during the pandemic.

"It really sums up their whole approach — it's empty, performative, and misses the point," Ward told CBC News. "They're talking about courageous conversations … They could have some in the Legislature, maybe in policy terms."

She said the cost of the merchandise is beside the point.

"I'm sure the grand scheme of things, it's pennies," she said. "We actually want a safe supply of drugs, not tea or various crap."

She and Ranger both say B.C.'s promised prescription "safe supply" has fallen short, leaving thousands of drug users without prescription access, forced to rely on what they can buy on the street.

Much of that illicit supply is contaminated by potent and dangerous narcotics such as fentanyl and carfentanyl.

Ranger quipped that if B.C. had distributed opium poppy seeds in its seed packs, it might have been useful. 

In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said the items were sent this month as thank-you gifts to participants in a peer focus group of substance users.

They were originally made in 2019 to "support a previous phase of a public awareness campaign ... to reduce stigma," including at major sports games, Recovery Day and school events.

"Addressing this crisis will take more than just government investment," a ministry spokesperson said via email. "We need to end the stigma around substance use."

"Our government is unwavering in our commitment to end this toxic drug crisis," the ministry said, adding its most recent budget included $500 million "to support and build up" mental health and addiction services, on top of the province's annual funding of $2.7 billion.

The items were originally made in 2019 to support a previous phase of a public awareness campaign, according to the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. (Corey Ranger)

For Moms Stop the Harm co-founder Leslie McBain, the items were a "slap in the face."

"I couldn't really understand what the efficacy of this would be," she said. "Is this going to change anybody's thoughts on drug use and on stopping overdose?"

Her own son, Jordan, died in 2014 of an overdose at age 25. This Christmas was particularly painful in her house.

"For some reason, this year was harder for me than than other years ... the grief of not having that person here and not having Jordan here at the table," she said. "Nobody gets through these holidays unscathed who's had anything happen to their family."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David P. Ball

Journalist

David P. Ball is a multimedia journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. He has previously reported for the Toronto Star, Agence France-Presse, and The Tyee, and has won awards from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Jack Webster Foundation. You can send story tips or ideas to david.ball@cbc.ca, or contact him on Twitter.

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