Drug Users Want to Lead Victoria’s Opioid Crisis Battle

Give us more money, say peer-run harm reduction groups like SOLID.

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Jun 25 2018, 7:27pm

An employee prepares injection equipment at an injection site. | Image source, CP. 

As a new safe consumption site opened its doors in Victoria last week, marking a new wave of government funding to battle British Columbia’s overdose crisis, drug users say their own peer-run programs are being kept at arm’s length, and may be missing out on some life-saving resources.

With the largest injection site on Vancouver Island now up and running, focus has shifted to a second stream of funding, an extra $1.65 million the province allocated “for community-led responses to the opioid overdose crisis.” The announcements come in the wake of more staggering illicit drug overdoses in the province—so far there’s been 511 illicit drug overdose deaths in BC as of April 30, and Victoria has seen 39 overdose deaths already this year.

The new money is undoubtedly good news; however, some peer-harm reduction groups like the Society of Living Intravenous Drug Users (SOLID) say they’re still falling short of the resources and staff they need to combat the overdose crisis—mainly because of how it’s distributed. Their main issue with funding model is outlined in a letter to the Overdose Emergency Response Centre (OERC) signed by several drug user groups, including SOLID’s programs director Jack Phillips, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

“We fear we are seeing the beginnings of a process where funds are getting caught up within the health authorities and being distributed among professional research bodies and institutions,” reads the letter. “We see a pattern where the commitment and dedication of people who use drugs to saving lives within our communities is taken advantage of by institutions in order to exploit us and our work with non-equitable wages and no supports.”

Photos of the new permanent consumption site in Victoria | Image courtesy of Island Health.

SOLID and groups like VANDU have been meeting with officials to address the issue, but for now funding remains a constant hurdle in battle against overdoses on BC’s streets. Part of the reason for this is how severe the crisis has become. Mark Willson, the operations director at SOLID, said that “the context has changed a lot” when it comes to what SOLID is doing in the wake of the overdose crisis. “Now we’re shifting pretty much into preventing death,” he said.

SOLID has been around since 2003 and consists of current or former illicit drug users in Victoria. They also have a presence and chapter in Nanaimo. Currently, the group consists of 14 or so paid employees, and another 15 to 20 core volunteers. Their overall aim is to provide peer-harm reduction strategies to the local community.

Part of Willson’s job at SOLID is to help apply and ask for funding from the health authorities. Willson said that although they do receive support from the province and health authorities, it’s not enough, “We’re seeing a more top-down approach… and we’re no longer seeing the money coming down to the grassroots and the front lines.”

Willson added that the entire notion of a drug user organization is rare and different, but it is a “movement” and he says “there is a recognition from the health authority that you need these organizations to support people.” Yet, Willson adds that there is a gap somewhere along the way between groups like SOLID and local health authorities.

SOLID gets their funding through contracts from the local health authorities. Currently, SOLID has several contracts, including: a bloodborne disease contract that includes volunteer outreach which includes needle pickup and group therapy programs for Hep-C and indigenous support groups. They also have a contract with the Portland Hotel Society that includes “inreach” and support in the private injection site; most recently, they’ve been given a full-time seven-day a week contract with new permanent site beside Our Place Society.

In addition to their contracts, SOLID is also research partners with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) at the University of Victoria; they also offer naloxone training, distribute safe drug supplies (pipes and syringes) and do housing outreach with BC Housing.

SOLID also has a street college program that acts as street outreach and education: “Our street college program is huge. That's our core of our community street college. It turns into leadership...” said Paige Phillips who is the health and education coordinator at SOLID.

Paige also recently became VAT certified (Vulnerability Assessment Tool) which is a big deal for SOLID as it now gives them some more legitimacy in the eyes of detox centres and BC Housing. In essence, SOLID is “now a legitimate service provider” in both the medical and legal system.

Photos of the new permanent consumption site in Victoria. | Image courtesy of Island Health.

In addition to the therapy program and community outreach, SOLID is also piloting ethical research on a cannabis substitution program. On an almost daily basis, SOLID has anywhere from 80-100 people lineup to receive cannabis in various forms. "Cannabis is very valuable as a pain reliever, with all the obvious things, eat, sleep, trauma relief, psychic pain, these are things that cannabis helps with, but it also really helps with the physical pain of withdrawal," Jack told VICE.

SOLID receives donations from local dispensaries and relies heavily on volunteers to run the weed substitution program. One woman I spoke to said the CSP has helped her kick a $500-dollar-a-day crack habit. She’s now primarily using cannabis and methadone to try and get clean.

But there’s still more barriers to be broken and one of the biggest obstacles in SOLID’s growth is acquiring extra funding for programs like CSP. Jack also told VICE that funding is impacting how many people SOLID can employee and manage, as the current lack of funding is impacting the amount of volunteers they can have working at any one time. In short, more funding would mean more staff to manage SOLID’s outreach and its volunteers.

When asked for comment, the province didn’t directly respond to the funding claims by groups like SOLID (VICE did follow-up with the province about the funding claims, but did not receive a response by deadline), but instead wrote: “Peer-led harm reduction programs and drug user networks, including SOLID and VANDU, have made invaluable contributions to the overdose emergency response,” said Tara Gostelow, Senior Public Affairs Officer of the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in an email to VICE. “We are grateful to be able to work with these individuals and organizations to help drive forward innovative solutions and ensure that the needs of people who use drugs are at the core of our response.”

Island Health was also hesitant to address the funding issue directly to VICE, the following is their e-mailed answer to the funding claims by SOLID: “There is no one solution to the opioid crisis, but there are effective tools and partnerships. Island Health provides funding for peer supports across the continuum,” replied Meribeth Burton, Media Relations at Island Health.

Ultimately, it’s clear the groups like SOLID are valued by local and provincial health authorities for their awareness of what’s happening on the front lines of the overdose crisis. However, the worry is that further bureaucratizing response to the illicit drug overdose crisis might stall the progress groups like SOLID are trying to make. SOLID’s Willson warned that this bureaucratic takeover of harm reduction is not what was originally intended at the grassroots level.

“What we are seeing is a professionalization of harm reduction, but it’s coming through in a very bureaucratic and top down-approach, rather than trusting community organizations that already have relationships and knowledge,” he said. ‘Harm reduction started as a community movement and we’re struggling to keep it as such.”

Follow Tyler Hooper on Twitter.

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