While it’s true that the social problems associated with addiction have been with us for a long time, it is clear that in recent years the situation has become much worse in this province.
With the introduction of more powerful and deadly drugs onto our streets, addiction rates have risen, which has led to a matching increase in property and theft crimes as desperate people turn to these methods to feed their addiction. Our court system and prisons have become swamped with these cases and the status quo is just not working.
Our provincial government had announced earlier this year that they were considering a new approach for dealing with these types of crimes, and last Friday, the province’s first Drug Treatment Court in St. John’s began taking cases.
This is an approach that has had success in other parts of Canada and I see no reason why it shouldn’t have an impact here, as well. Such courts do not ignore the reality of the crimes that were committed but put the focus on providing help and treatment for the underlying problem behind the criminal behaviour rather than punishment by locking people up in prison. There is still judicial oversight of those who qualify for this court, but it happens in the community rather than within the walls of a prison and it works hand-in-hand with treatment programs and drug-testing to help monitor the recovery of participants from their addictive behaviour. The option of imprisonment is still there for anyone who doesn’t take the opportunity seriously and continues to actively engage in their addiction, so there’s no free pass for their crimes. In addition, the criteria to qualify for this court excludes violent crimes which provides an extra layer of protection for society.
There are some programs here, but not enough to meet the need and they can’t all be located in St. John’s.
Overall, it sounds like a reasonable approach to dealing with this problem and I hope it will be successful. Where I have concerns is with the practicalities of the treatment and support services that currently exist in this province and whether they will be able to meet the needs required by the court. We have two excellent primary addictions treatment programs in Corner Brook and Harbour Grace; however, both programs have waiting lists for their services of people who are voluntarily seeking treatment. How can they be expected to absorb the extra people that may result from the Drug Treatment Court when they already have people waiting for their services?
A bigger issue is what happens to these people once they finish their primary treatment. While some people may be able to return to their lives in the community and remain clean with a minimum of community supports, a greater number require secondary supports to allow them to put into practice the recovery skills they learned during treatment. The critical need for these people is safe and supportive housing with programs that reinforce these learned skills within the context of living in the community. Such programs allow the person to gradually transition back to society without having to return to the environment in which they engaged in their addictions and help them find healthier options to build a better future. There are some programs here, but not enough to meet the need and they can’t all be located in St. John’s.
A recent attempt by a group in Conception Bay North to set up such a program in Victoria was stymied by some residents who were opposed, and the town council denied the request; this is another barrier to be overcome if we are to succeed with this approach.
We need to put financial and community support behind such initiatives, not oppose them. Whether people like it or not, active addiction is occurring in all of our communities and in all kinds of neighbourhoods. If we are to be successful, recovery housing needs to exist in these same neighbourhoods. It costs much less than incarceration and, money aside, are a more effective and compassionate way to deal with this social problem.
Brian Hodder is an LBGTQ2 activist and works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.