B.C. pauses controversial overdose bill affecting youth, but groups say drop it

VANCOUVER — The British Columbia government has paused legislation aimed at detaining youth under 19 in care after they overdose but the representative for children and youth joined advocates calling on the province to withdraw it altogether.

Jennifer Charlesworth said Monday the proposed changes to the Mental Health Act would deter youth from asking for help over fears they'd be forced to stay in hospital for up to seven days.

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The bill would disproportionately impact Indigenous youth and many of them may have turned to drugs as a way to numb trauma that could include being removed from their families, Charlesworth said.

The current toxic drug supply, which led to a record number of overdoses in B.C. last month, requires the government to instead focus on providing early interventions and residential treatment, she said.

She said involuntary care takes away what little control youth may have so it's up to them to choose if they want to get treatment.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy has said the goal is to stabilize youth and connect them with services in the community.

"Stabilization for what?" Charlesworth asked, noting a report issued by her office in March showed the province had no intensive community day treatment program.

"There were six youth-specific intensive care management programs in B.C. but none in the Fraser or northern regions," she said.

Seven residential detox programs offer 27 youth beds but six had wait lists. Out of the six publicly funded community residential treatment programs, five had wait lists, some up to three months, the report said.

"Involuntary care may have a place in some extreme situations. However, it's not a place to begin," Charlesworth said.

Darcy said Monday that the government ran out of time to get through the bill before the end of the legislative session but will continue seeing input from those who hold a wide variety of views.

Consultations over several months included the First Nations Health Authority, the First Nations Health Council, First Nations health directors and the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, which worked on a pilot project with psychiatrists at BC Children's Hospital, where some patients were Indigenous, Darcy said.

The First Nations Health Authority said in a statement that it welcomes the delay to approving a measure that would allow for the involuntary hospital admission of youth and will continue to participate in discussions on how to address issues involving overdose in a culturally safe and appropriate way.

"This is a challenging issue and there is wide diversity of opinion on it, very strongly held views," Darcy said.

Premier John Horgan suggested he is in favour of the proposed legislation, saying he's spoken with parents whose children died after leaving hospital and provisions of the proposed legislation may have given them an opportunity for recovery.

"I believe it's the right way to go and we don't have the support of the legislature at this time so we're going to be taking a pause," he said, noting the "pushback" and the NDP's "precarious minority situation."

Hawkfeather Peterson, spokeswoman for the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, said she sits on two government-chaired committees related to drug use and was shocked that she and others weren't consulted before the legislative amendments were proposed.

"Whether the bill is paused or not, our government has really loudly proclaimed that substance-using youth do not deserve the same rights and protections as others," Peterson said, adding those already at risk of dying from overdose face enough stigma.

British Columbia declared a public health emergency in April 2016 as overdoses began escalating. Since then, more than 5,000 people have died.

Drug users in British Columbia were behind the effort to open North America's first supervised injection site in 2003 after years of court challenges by the federal government.

Insite was initially opened illegally as a life-saving measure that was later duplicated around the country for people who could use injection drugs under medical supervision.

Garth Mullins, spokesman for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said civil disobedience may be one way to deal with the province's "regressive" drug policy if the bill is not pulled.

Mullins, a former heroin user, said he too is among people and groups, including Moms Stop the Harm, that recently quit committees that the B.C. government chairs.

"Until they get this right, we're going to see more people die."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2020.

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