Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Alcohol harm reduction's time is now

Alcohol harm reduction's time is now: "The meeting discussed in this column, which ran in 24 Hours, was a huge success - five police forces, Vancouver Coastal Health, City of Vancouver, Fire Department... the list goes on. We're now moving to next steps to make sobering centres and managed alcohol programs a reality across B.C.


Our province needs to reform radically how we work with homeless people who are addicted to alcohol if we want to provide some of the most desperate members of our society with healthcare, programs and dignity instead of mouthwash, rice wine or hand sanitizer.

Tomorrow there’s a by-invitation only meeting of provincial health, advocacy and law enforcement leaders at SFU Harbour Centre to discuss just that. Senior representatives of local health authorities, five police forces, the fire department, social and human rights advocacy groups, aboriginal leaders, both of B.C.’s police complaints bodies, the Province’s police services division, and MLAs from government and opposition alike will be there, and for full disclosure, the meeting is convened in part by my employer, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association in partnership with three other organizations.

The agenda is an unambiguous promotion of the common sense idea that police, with just basic first aid training, should not be making medical assessments of people who may have overdosed on drugs or alcohol. It is a promotion of the intuitive notion that taking someone who drinks mouthwash all day and instead serving them measured doses of alcohol in a safe and programmed environment reduces emergency healthcare costs and dramatically improves health and quality of life. Presenters from cities where these steps have already been taken will be sharing their lifesaving results with policy makers in Vancouver. Hopefully our policy makers will listen.

In Portland, when someone who is drunk or high in public encounters police, that person is not arrested and taken to jail where there is no medical care. Police instead call the roving response van. On board, a nurse certified in working with the health needs of alcoholics and people who use illicit drugs does an assessment. Where necessary, people are transferred by the van to a non-jail sobering centre where they are medically assessed again, and then monitored by medically trained specialists, not police, until they are released. When the Vancouver Police came up with their sobering centre proposal for Vancouver, the proposal was developed all the way to the final funding stage, but to this day it remains unfunded.

In Ontario the province protects the welfare of the hardest of the hardcore chronic alcoholics through a measured alcohol program. A program that serves people who drink mouthwash, hand sanitizer, rice wine, or other products not intended for consumption in order to get drunk.

Toronto’s Seaton House provides these people with some stability and dignity in their lives by giving them measured and monitored doses of alcohol, along with opportunities for programming, detox, treatment and healthcare. When Vancouver approved an injection site for illegal drugs, it seemed crazy to many, but now almost everyone knows Insite saves lives. It’s time to create a safe “injection site” for our legal intoxicating drug, alcohol.

Given the RSVPs for the meeting from the Province, police, health authorities and other decision makers tomorrow, it’s clear the time for sobering centres and managed alcohol programs has come to B.C.
Visit pivotlegal.org for more information about Vancouver's low-income housing crisis.

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