Manitoba

New illicit drug task force will look for ways to fight meth, opioid crisis in Manitoba

A new task force will look for ways to fight the rising distribution and use of illicit drugs, including meth, in Winnipeg, members of all three levels of government announced Tuesday morning.

Task force will look for ways to improve programs and enforcement, get advice from health professionals

Methamphetamine was linked to 35 deaths in Manitoba in 2017. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

A new task force will look for ways to fight the rising distribution and use of illicit drugs, including meth, in Winnipeg, members of all three levels of government announced Tuesday morning.

The illicit drug task force will search for short- and long-term ideas to fight the use of illegal drugs, including methamphetamine, opioids and cocaine.

"We are too aware of the swath of destruction from illicit drugs such as methamphetamines," Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said at the announcement at Manitoba Legislature, where he was joined by MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Mayor Brian Bowman.

The task force will look for ways to improve existing programs and enforcement, get advice from health professionals and provide recommendations on how to better communicate the dangers of illicit drugs. No cost estimates were given at the press conference.

"As far as we know this is the first initiative of this kind in the country," Bowman said.

Ouellette, who represents Winnipeg Centre, said the task force will work to reverse the devastation caused by the illicit drug crisis.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, left, Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen, centre, and Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette announce a new illicit drug task force at the Manitoba Legislature Tuesday morning. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Rick Lees, the executive director of the Main Street Project — a local non-profit community health agency that serves vulnerable residents in the city — said he welcomes the news with cautious optimism.

"One of the challenges, as direct-support service providers, is trying to deal with three levels of government that have three different approaches," he said.

He hopes the task force will engage with front-line service providers like Main Street Project to bring Canada up to speed by borrowing ideas from treatment programs in other countries.

"I think the meth crisis is far too desperate a situation to be worrying about where we get the right evidence from."

For example, he said, Australia and New Zealand offer one-year treatment programs bolstered by strong cognitive behavioural therapy and social supports after clinical detoxification.

"If you're dealing with meth in particular, 30-, 60- and 90-day programs of treatment generally don't work and fail, notwithstanding how well intended they are."

Rick Lees, executive director of the Main Street Project, says vulnerable residents who use meth and other illicit drugs need help now. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Lees said there's no time to wait for the task force to deliberate — vulnerable drug users require immediate action.

The province needs long-term treatment programs that allow for at least one year of wraparound supports, which requires resources, time and money, Lees said — particularly when it comes to dealing with meth.

Specific details about community membership on the task force were left out of the tri-government announcement.

'Unified front'

Dr. Ginette Poulin, the medical director at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, said she was "very happy to see that all levels of government have taken an interest in this problem and are ready to face this problem in a unified front."

Dr. Ginette Poulin with the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba says treatment needs to go beyond "just chasing the drug," which means looking at the underlying issues of meth use, such as trauma and the family unit. (Megan Goddard/Radio-Canada)

Poulin expressed worry over the task force's ability to prevent deaths as a result of powerful human-made stimulants and opioids, but was unable to predict the number of lives lost.

"It's hard to give an exact number, and certainly, I would say, it's not a number that's going to be eliminated," Poulin said, referring to data from the medical examiner which shows 69 deaths in 2016 in Manitoba. The number of deaths as a result of meth has increased exponentially from 2014 to 2017, she added.

Poulin emphasized the need for more beds for withdrawal management and better ways to deal with meth-induced psychosis. The doctor agreed with other community leaders who recommend the task force looks to other nations for guidance on treatment, safety and security protocols, as well as the overall management of illicit substances.

"People are ready and prepared to be addressing this issue in a co-ordinated fashion," Poulin said. 

Meth use wreaks 'havoc' in Winnipeg

The creation of the illicit drug task force comes on the heels of a parliamentary health committee meeting earlier this month, where Ouellette was joined by Manitobans representing groups who are on the front lines of the drug crisis.

James Favel of the Bear Clan Patrol and Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, were among those who spoke to the health committee about illicit drugs.

Favel said he has seen firsthand the rise in consumption and the "havoc wreaked" as a result of meth abuse in Winnipeg's inner-city communities.

The Bear Clan Patrol's James Favel was one of the people who spoke to the health committee about drug use in Winnipeg. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"Two of our own Bear Clan family members were lost to addiction and overdose," Favel said to the health committee.

"Methamphetamine did play a role in both of those tragedies."

Opposition leader responds

Wab Kinew, the leader of the Manitoba NDP, slammed the provincial government over Tuesday's announcement, calling it the "illusion of action."

"We already know what the experts recommend to fight this crisis," Kinew said in a statement. His concerns circled around the piles of needles that could end up in the hands of Manitobans who struggle with substance abuse in the context of what he called a lack of sufficient treatment options, safe injection sites and investments in harm reduction.

"Families shouldn't have to wait," he said.

The new task force is expected to report back with recommendations by June 2019.

A new task force will look for ways to fight the rising distribution and use of illicit drugs, including meth, in Winnipeg, members of all three levels of government announced Tuesday morning. 2:09

With files from Sean Kavanagh