Advocates, families enlist police chief, Opposition leader in push to decriminalize drug possession
'My son deserved better — our children are way more than how they died,' says advocate
A group of Winnipeggers who've lost loved ones to fatal drug poisonings are trying to raise awareness in the lead-up to Overdose Awareness Month in August — and they've enlisted prominent politicians, police and emergency workers to help get their message out.
Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane and NDP Leader Wab Kinew joined about 20 members of Overdose Awareness Manitoba and Moms Stop the Harm for a recent photo shoot on the banks of the Red River.
Arlene Last-Kolb is one of the advocates in the photo and represents the groups. She said the photo is part of a countrywide campaign to signal support for harm-reduction measures aimed at preventing overdose deaths.
That includes decriminalizing illicit drugs for personal use, creating a safe supply of all drugs, and making the life-saving opioid antidote naloxone an unscheduled substance, so it's more accessible.
"My son deserved better — our children are way more than how they died," said Last-Kolb, whose 24-year-old son, Jessie Last-Kolb, died of a fentanyl poisoning in 2014.
"There's no shame, there's no stigma. We want them to be treated like anyone else with a health issue and we want them to be treated with compassion."
WPS chief supports decriminalization
Fire Paramedic Chief Lane participated in the photo because he empathizes with those whose have lost loved ones, but he has never publicly taken a pro-decriminalization stance, said a city spokesperson.
Kinew and Smyth, however, do support decriminalization for personal use. Both believe substance misuse should be treated as a health issue.
Smyth is among several high-ranking law enforcement officials who have recently spoken in favour of some of the measures Overdose Awareness Manitoba is advocating for.
He sits on the board of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which earlier this month called on the federal government to decriminalize illegal drugs for personal use.
'It doesn't really help people'
Criminalizing possession "doesn't really help people," he said.
"For those that are struggling with addiction, it just makes way more sense to divert them into programming that will help them manage and cope with their addictions."
Winnipeg and other Canadian cities are in the midst of a rise in opioid and other drug overdoses during the pandemic.
Manitoba's chief medical examiner won't have data on fatalities until the fall, but emergency call data shows calls for opioid and meth poisonings are up significantly compared to this time last year.
Smyth said that has to do with supply chain disruptions in the illegal markets. Meth prices rose, while opioids appear to be surging again in Winnipeg.
The products on the street lately appear to be more toxic and dangerous than before, he said, with fentanyl and other opioids showing up laced with meth, cocaine and other substances.
Advocates point to the recent surge in overdose deaths and poisonings as a sign it's time for Canada to create its own safe supply of drugs, and for Manitoba to open supervised consumption sites.
Smyth believes all the options Overdose Awareness Manitoba is pushing should be up for consideration. So does Kinew.
'So far behind'
The NDP promised in its 2019 campaign run to open safe consumption sites. Premier Brian Pallister has been non-committal on the sites, but Kinew still believes the province has a chance to invest in them.
"We're so far behind where the experts and where the evidence tells us we should be," he said.
"Now that we're talking about decriminalization … I would hate for partisanship to get in the way of Manitobans being able to appreciate us doing what the evidence tells us we need to do to tackle one of our great public health crises."
WATCH | Push for decriminalization enlists police chief, NDP leader overdose awareness photo campaign:
CBC News asked the premier's office Thursday if he supports decriminalization, the creation of a safe supply of drugs and supervised consumption sites, and his view on making naloxone an unscheduled substance.
His press secretary, Olivia Billson, said Manitoba Health is currently exploring changing naloxone from a Schedule 2 drug — which can only be distributed by a licensed pharmacy — to an unscheduled drug. The province also announced in June it would spend $200,000 to double the number of naloxone take-home kits in the province.
"Decriminalizing illicit drugs would require changes to federal legislation, not provincial," Billson added. "Our government would need to review what specific changes, if any, the federal government would propose before offering a detailed position on the matter."
Last-Kolb said she doesn't feel the current administration has done enough to increase access to naloxone or boost supports like long-term treatment and detox centres.
'Not a moral failing'
The group intentionally did not invite the premier to take part in the photo for that reason, Last-Kolb said. She'd still like to know where he stands on decriminalization and access to safer sources of drugs.
"I would sooner have my son here doing a safe drug than to not have him here at all," said Last-Kolb.
"We have to rethink the way that we deal with addiction. It is not a moral failing and we cannot push treatment down people's throats."