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UCP leader says he's opposed to more safe-drug-consumption sites -- but how would he address opioid crisis?

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Jason Kenney. Photo: michael_swan/flickr

It wouldn't be fair to ask Jason Kenney to be his brother's keeper, but it's reasonable to wonder if the Alberta Opposition leader's brother has influenced his thinking about harm-reduction as a response to the opioid crisis, and in what ways.

Kenney was widely criticized for statements he made last Wednesday in Lethbridge, to the effect that if his United Conservative Party formed government on his watch, he would oppose expanding safe consumption sites in Alberta communities.

"Helping addicts inject poison into their bodies is not a solution to the problem of addiction," the UCP leader said, a statement that was widely interpreted on social media as indicating either his ignorance and hostility to scientific evidence, or a cynical desire to pander to his party's social conservative base.

Despite its brevity, the small story Thursday in the Lethbridge Herald about Kenney's observations did note that his position runs counter to the recommendations of local government officials, health groups and police. It did not, however, provide much information about why so many health-care professionals advocate harm-reduction strategies such as safe-injection sites as part of a co-ordinated response to North America's continuing opioid overdose crisis.

Experts seem to agree the only strategy that will save lives -- as opposed to winning votes, presumably -- includes harm-reduction techniques such as supervised-injection clinics where overdoses can be treated and drugs that will kill can be detected before use. The logic of this is that even though using powerful and dangerous drugs is not a good idea, the supply is plentiful, demand is strong, and users will die if they hide when they're using.

As a market fundamentalist missionary, this is something one would think Kenney would understand.

However, harm reduction goes against the harsh religious fundamentalist view, which Kenney also endorses, that drug abuse is sin, and therefore that reducing its impact somehow encourages sinning. Given his track record on a number of issues, it's not hard to believe Kenney's commentary was designed to appeal to members of his party's base who harbour such opinions

It's also possible, however, Kenney was influenced by the views of his brother, David Kenney, who with his wife once operated an unlicensed youth treatment centre in British Columbia that, in the words of the Toronto Sun, "purports to help kids with drug addiction, depression and psychological issues."

According to the Feb. 13, 2014, story in the Sun, Kelowna operations of NeurVana Innovative Recovery and Wellness Inc., which the paper said billed itself online as "officially recognized by the province of British Columbia," were shut down by the B.C. government and young people in the company's care sent home.

Media reports said the government closed two treatment centres in the Okanagan Valley city for operating without a licence in 2013. But news stories also indicated reports young people in the facility were "bullied and mistreated" brought the company to the government's attention. Reports of "abuse and neglect" resulted in a lawsuit by the families of children at the centre.

According to the 2014 Sun story, "NeurVana says it uses a technique called 'Brainwave Optimization' which it says can cure 'addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, self-destructive behaviour, rage and anger, eating disorders, and more.'"

Regardless, given the advocacy of the UCP and its predecessor political parties, for private heath-care delivery it would be reasonable for mainstream news reporters with regular access to Kenney to ask him if he has been influenced by the views of his family members on techniques such as the use of "brainwave optimization" to treat addictions.

Physicians consulted about brainwave optimization by the CBC in another context were skeptical about the technique.

One thing was very clear from Kenney's Lethbridge commentary, and that is that he has not given up on the "war on drugs" strategy as the best way to reduce harmful drug use.

Well, as Premier Rachel Notley observed in her speech to the Alberta NDP's Provincial Council in Edmonton Saturday, "Jason, the 1990s are calling, and they want their ridiculous ideas back!"

According to the Herald, Kenney asked: "Why aren't we giving the police adequate resources to chase down every source in the criminal to world (sic) to find out who is dealing poison on the streets of Lethbridge right now?"

He went on, not without unintended irony, to wonder, "Why aren't we massively increasing funding for the Canada's Border Service Agency to interdict the importation of deadly drugs from China and elsewhere?"

The CBSA is a federal agency. So one answer to that question may be that back in 2012, when Kenney was sitting at the cabinet table in Ottawa, the government of then-prime minister Stephen Harper cut the CBSA's budget by 10 per cent, resulting in the immediate loss of 250 front-line Border Services officers and more in subsequent years.

By 2015, days before the federal election that saw the Conservatives swept from power, about 1,300 positions had been eliminated at the CSBA and $143 million cut from the agency's budget. Front-line border officers, sniffer-dog teams and CBSA intelligence officers all lost their jobs in the Conservative cuts, media reported.

In addition to saving the lives of drug users who overdose, supervised consumption clinics prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C, bacterial infections and other medical conditions to drug users as well as people with whom they come in contact.

"Kenney's hypocrisy is unfathomable," observed Cam Westhead, NDP MLA for Banff-Cochrane in a Facebook response to the UCP leader's comments.

"Let's not also forget that when it comes to solutions that require increased funding, that in 2015 the former PC government rejected a $1.4-million grant that would have helped fund drug treatment programs during a time when fentanyl was killing a person a day in Alberta," noted Westhead, who is a Registered Nurse. "Alberta was the only province to decline this funding."

He noted that the minister responsible at the time for refusing that funding "now occupies a leadership position in Alberta's political scene" -- a reference to Stephen Mandel, chosen as the leader of the Alberta Party on Feb. 27.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: michael_swan/flickr

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