Manitoba

Winnipeg mayor joins critics in saying meth task force report falls short on specifics

A task force struck by three levels of government to fight Manitoba's meth crisis is calling for more services to wean addicts off the drug — but stopped short of calling for a safe consumption site.

Report calls for more medical withdrawal and detoxification centres in Manitoba, but no safe consumption sites

A tri-government task force tasked with keeping Manitoba's meth crisis at bay made a number of recommendations, including a push for more co-ordination among detoxification, treatment and supportive housing. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman is calling for immediate action. (CBC)

Political leaders are calling for immediate action to combat Manitoba's devastating methamphetamine crisis after a task force recommended more long-term treatment programs — but stopped short of proposing a supervised consumption site.

The long-awaited report was released publicly on Friday, six months after a task force struck by the city, provincial and federal governments was formed to put a stop to a disturbing spike in crime and violence linked to the drug.

The task force recommends more treatment spaces, supportive housing and employment opportunities for those in the throes of addiction.

The report describes supervised consumption sites as an effective approach, but makes no recommendation to build any of the controversial facilities because a consensus among the working group could not be reached.

Less talk, more action

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said the report falls short, specifically on supervised consumption sites. He'll present several ideas to advance the report's ideas to the executive policy committee next week, but wants his counterparts to step up.

"There are simply not enough specific, short-term actions outlined to implement immediately," Bowman told reporters.

He said pending federal and provincial elections should not prevent his counterparts from acting.

"There may be reasons why they're not able to cut ribbons or make announcements about it — we'll do that for them, if necessary."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, left, Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen, centre, and Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette were on hand last December to announce the formation of a task force to tackle the hold of illicit drugs on Manitoba, specifically methamphetamine. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The task force overseen by the three levels of government made more than 20 recommendations, many of which sought to address the root causes of methamphetamine use, in addition to opioids and other illicit drugs.

The task force says the need for more medical withdrawal and detoxification centres is immediate. It said counselling and transition programs should be expanded.

Manitoba is also limited in the number of supportive long-term programs for drug users, the report said. The working group argues that beds should be set aside for at least a year.

Long-term treatment sought

"There are a variety of people using substances that require 365 [days] plus in terms of wrap-around support, so we've tried to be as clear as we can that the governments need to align their resources to enhance that kind of care," Michael Jack, chief operating officer for the city and co-chair of the task force, said.

The report specifically recommends a co-ordinated approach to "detoxification, medical transition, treatment and supportive housing."

The task force urges the expansion of safe spaces for people who use substances. The report notes the agencies running the centres should receive funding for all-day operation.

Safe spaces "allows individuals to build a sense of connection and belonging within their community, reduces the social isolation they experience, and is a vital link in referring them to appropriate resources and programming," the report says.

Insp. Max Waddell, commander of the Winnipeg Police Service's organized crime unit, displays some of the drugs seized as part of Project Riverbank at a Nov. 1, 2018, media event. (Warren Kay/CBC )

The recommendation validates the work of Main Street Project, said executive director Rick Lees, who is fundraising to build a 24-hour shelter at the former Mitchell Fabrics building which they acquired.

The report calls for community outreach teams — groups of service providers (which may consist of nurses, social workers and police officers, among others) who receive recent meth users not in immediate danger so they don't clog emergency rooms unnecessarily.

The team's work would complement community safety networks, which can respond to phone calls regarding drug trafficking and violence, the report said. A designated person in each safety network would forward relevant information to police.

On the matter of enforcement, joint enforcement units and improved data sharing are listed as recommendations. The task force proposes new legislation so police can detain people longer while high on meth.

The report adds that Crime Stoppers should offer more cash in exchange for drug tips. 

The report supports an expansion of the Winnipeg drug treatment court, so more people dealing with addictions are diverted from jail cells, and that the model be replicated in other centres.

The committee proposes longer hours for the walk-in addiction clinics introduced by the Manitoba government, as well as clear pathways so people who visit the clinic are referred to additional help. 

The report calls for needle distribution to be handled centrally.

'It's not pie in the sky'

Health Minister Cameron Friesen described the findings as a "road map."

"We have governments that will ultimately respond to the recommendations of the report, each in its own lane," he said. "Our government has said that our approach needs to be one that makes the absolute best use of public dollars to get the best and most significant gains that we can."

Lees appreciated that the report encouraged 24-hour safe spaces and listening to the ideas of drug users.

"It's not pie in the sky, it's not five years from now," he said of the recommendations. "These are things that if government chooses to, can be implemented now and many of them are actually happening now."

Rick Lees, executive director of Main Street Project, likes that the task force's report acknowledges that supervised consumption sites are one possible form of harm reduction. (CBC)

He didn't mind that a supervised consumption site wasn't recommended, since the report noted those types of facilities "can be part of a long-term approach to addressing harms."

"The public debate prior to making that statement was always, 'We're not sure if they even work or not,' so I think we've put that to rest," he said.

"If we were allowed to continue and do work further, we might be able to enhance that recommendation."

Friesen said the Manitoba government remains skeptical of the idea.

Marion Willis, who founded Morberg House, a St. Boniface halfway house for recovering addicts, agrees.

"Meth is not like other addictions. It's very different, and the behaviours are very different — the paranoia, the delusional thinking."

Willis said she felt put off by the report because she and other people on the frontlines weren't consulted, but "it does sound to me like the people who have been around the table certainly do have an understanding."

She runs a long-term treatment facility, the likes of which are needed in Winnipeg, said Skylar Moneyas, a recovering meth addict.

Marion Willis, the founder of St. Boniface Street Links and its executive director, says there is nowhere for people to go when they're in meth psychosis. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"They do need more detox, more treatment centres, long-term treatment centres, because 28 days is not going to cut it," said Moneyas, whose life spiraled after taking meth three years ago.

He said he went through a 28-day treatment program twice but has now been clean for about a year.

Robert-Falcon Ouellette, the Liberal MP for Winnipeg Centre, felt the task force's report was incomplete.

"I'm a little underwhelmed, perhaps," he said. "I thought it could have been a little bit more substantive."

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said in a statement the report lacks enough concrete actions to be considered a plan. 

One task force member said time-constraints prevented the group from doing more.

"We weren't able to have a really robust conversation about opioids, nor were we able to come up with
comprehensive action plans for rural and remote areas," Resource Assistance for Youth executive director Kelly Holmes said in a statement.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Angela Johnston, Austin Grabish

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