David Bly: Lack of treatment for addicts proves costly

The last time Pat saw her granddaughter, the younger woman was in the agony of drug withdrawal, crawling around on the floor and begging for help.

“I tried every contact I had to try to get her into a treatment centre,” said Pat, “but the best I could find was a place with a three-month wait list.

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“She left my home and her children and has been lost to us ever since. Her mother still seeks her out on the streets, at Our Place and in the hospital and courts.”

The now-middle-aged granddaughter — let’s call her M — wasn’t always this way.

“She was lively, artistic, musical, with three children,” said Pat. “Now she has three grandchildren she doesn’t know.”

Drug addiction started a vicious circle of jail, probation and hospital stays that has lasted for 10 years.

“The drugs have robbed her of her memory, so she forgets to check in with her probation officer, gets picked up, goes back to jail,” said Pat. “When her health gets too bad, it means back to the hospital for treatment for her hepatitis C, or leg infection from needles or when she had all her teeth taken out for a gum infection.”

She said M’s mother keeps trying to help. “My poor daughter just keeps trying. A mother can’t give up, but a grandmother has to stand back and face reality. I’m afraid my granddaughter is one of those who can’t be saved anymore. It’s only a question of time before she dies of an overdose.”

Pat believes M could have been saved, if treatment had been available.

“If only I had had enough money to get her into a private treatment centre 10 years ago, it could have saved all of the pain,” she said. “But my meagre pension did not allow that.”

The cost has not only been to Pat’s family. She estimates that M’s journeys through the revolving doors of courts, prison and hospitals have cost society at least $500,000, and likely more, as M stole to support her addiction. A fraction of that money spent on treatment at the right time could have steered a human being onto a better path, saving her and her family all that suffering.

It would have been cheaper and better for everyone concerned if M had been provided a daily dose of drugs under medical supervision. It sounds counter-intuitive to provide drugs to addicts — doesn’t that enable a filthy, destructive habit? — but the alternative is damaging and unproductive. How else, other than crime, does an addict with no income get her or his fix? That crime costs all of us.

Some countries deal with addiction-related problems by supplying addicts with heroin under controlled circumstances. For example, in the 1990s, the Netherlands began supplying long-term addicts with free heroin at government clinics, where counselling and health care were also available.

In the 1980s and 1990s, every large train station in the Netherlands was littered with junkies. Now, addicts have almost disappeared from public view and criminal behaviour among that group has plunged.

Providing free drugs hasn’t encouraged addiction, either. Heroin use among Dutch residents under the age of 40 is practically non-existent, while the group of addicts is shrinking and getting older.

Vancouver’s Insite, which provides a safe place to inject drugs, has succeeded in decreasing adverse social, economic and health effects of drug use.

On the Island, the Victoria Integrated Court was launched in 2010 to help the mentally ill and those with addictions through the justice system. Before the court began operation, 66 problem people were responsible for nearly 6,500 calls to police. After these people participated in the integrated court, the calls generated by this group dropped to fewer than 2,700.

But it would be better if people could get treatment before they become regulars in the justice system or clients of safe-injection sites. Treatment centres are expensive, but the lack of treatment turns out to be even more costly.

“You have to reach people early,” said Pat. She said she has another family member who struggled with drugs, but got help and is now a productive, outstanding citizen.

“But if you can’t get someone into treatment, you can’t help. I’m not the only grandmother who’s hurting.”

dbly@timescolonist.com

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