Experts warn against New Brunswick’s proposal for forced treatment of drug users

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Experts concerned about possible N.B. legislation regarding substance use treatment
WATCH: New Brunswick Public Safety Minister Kris Austin is considering legislation that would allow police officers to force individuals dealing with substance-use disorder into treatment. Harm reduction experts and those living with addiction argue the approach might do more harm than good. Suzanne Lapointe reports. – Sep 18, 2023

A group of experts is sounding the alarm about a proposal from the New Brunswick government that could result in forced treatment for drug users.

“We write to express our opposition and condemnation of your government’s plan to pursue legislation that will infringe people’s liberty rights by involuntarily apprehending and forcibly confining people who use drugs in New Brunswick,” the experts, from fields such as health, criminology and law, write in an open letter.

The experts say in the letter addressed to Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs and four of his cabinet ministers that the plan is unsupported by scientific evidence and represents an unjustifiable infringement of Charter rights.

Public Safety Minister Kris Austin has said during recent media interviews that the government is considering legislation that would allow police to force drug users into treatment in “extreme” cases.

Austin was unavailable for an interview Monday but his office said in an email that he has received the experts’ letter and appreciates the feedback.

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“The objective of the legislation is to help, in extreme cases, those individuals who are struggling with addiction and unable to meet their own basic needs,” a statement from his office said.

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“In order to help them, an intervention is required, one that includes a compassionate approach. The purpose of legislation would be to set out the parameters on how that intervention takes place.”

The plan was first aired in an Aug. 30 Facebook post by Progressive Conservative MLA Michelle Conroy following a “crime reduction meeting” with Austin and a team from the Department of Public Safety. A slide from the meeting said the government’s proposal for a “Compassionate Intervention Act” would come by the end of October.

Jamie Livingston, co-author of the letter and associate professor of criminology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, called the government’s proposal misguided.

“Not only is the legislation that’s being proposed ineffective, harmful, violates people’s rights but ultimately, it’ll take resources away from things that we know,” he said in an interview.

Livingston pointed to Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party, which has floated a similar proposal for legislation to allow mandatory drug treatment. The proposed law in Alberta would allow a family member, doctor, psychologist or police officer to petition a judge to issue a treatment order.

If enacted, Livingston said, the laws in Alberta and New Brunswick would empower police to round up people who use drugs and bring them to treatment facilities.

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“Ultimately, what this is, is the police apprehension and the involuntary detention of people who use drugs for non-criminal matters, which the evidence shows is ineffective, but also quite harmful and is contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he said.

Such treatment centres, if implemented, he noted would siphon resources from other areas, which is particularly hard in a province such as New Brunswick, where people already don’t have access to voluntary services.

The Department of Health funds, through the regional health authorities, a total of 79 beds for the purpose of detoxification through medical withdrawal, said spokesman Sean Hatchard. The wait time for clients to access a detox bed ranges from five to 27 days depending on the priority and severity of each situation, he said.

Livingston said people use drugs as a coping mechanism for other problems that they face and usually have a history of trauma.

“I think this proposed legislation is specifically trying to target people who are on the streets, who are homeless, who are living in poverty and very serious situations that are really the direct product of the government’s failure to find accessible and affordable housing, equitable access to health-care services, equitable access to substance use treatment and harm reduction services,” he said.

“It’s the accumulation of policies that have left people in real dire straits and in crisis.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.

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