Opioid crisis a complex issue, says Penticton RCMP

Education, awareness, collaborative community planning part of RCMP’s strategy

Education and awareness are two things that RCMP Const. James Grandy says are key in combating the ongoing opioid crisis in Penticton.

According to statistics released by BC Coroners Service at the beginning of December, 17 people fatally overdosed in Penticton between January and October of this year.

Read more: City of Penticton records all-time high for fatal overdoses

This put Penticton at the 12th highest area for rate of fatal overdoses in the province, with Kelowna ranking fifth highest with 27 overdose deaths from January to October 2019.

Grandy works as a part of Penticton’s Community Safety and Enforcement team, as the mental health and intervention co-ordinator. He has been in this role since the position was created for the Penticton detachment, a year and a half ago, after it was realized RCMP officers were routinely dealing with people suffering from addictions and mental health concerns.

“There was a need to, as there is in other communities, (to) bridge that gap between police and people who are suffering from a mental health issue, primarily,” said Grandy.

Grandy has seen many area of the province. Prior to working in Penticton he was stationed in Oliver, and before this, Burnaby. The last three years of his seven-year term in Burnaby was spent creating a mental health co-ordinator position, a partnership between that RCMP detachment and Fraser Health.

READ MORE [Part one of this story]: Life is a fragile commodity in the current South Okanagan opioid epidemic

“A lot of officers were not sure of how to move forward with some of those cases; like who is available in the community to assist? There wasn’t really any communication between the RCMP and the health system, and there needed to be that,” said Grandy.

“Otherwise you’re not really solving the problem. You’re not getting that person the right help.”

In Penticton, Grandy’s role is to help identify those in the community that police deal with often and need intervention by a third party. Grandy then helps direct those individuals toward the service that best suits their needs.

It’s no secret that opioids are becoming more of a problem all the time. In Penticton, this year saw a record number of fatal overdoses and 243 calls to emergency services for potential overdoses between Jan. 1 and Dec. 17. Although the number of callouts is less than 2018, the number of fatal overdoses is higher so far.

Penticton has had an increase in deaths consistently since 2015, when three people overdosed, followed by seven in 2016, 14 in 2017 and 16 in 2018.

So what has changed to explain this increase in deadly overdoses? Grandy attributed it to the level of addiction, which continues to increase.

Some individuals might dabble in drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin, he said, but the real problem arises when these drugs they’re taking are mixed with an opioid, in most cases fentanyl.

“So now you’re taking an already destructive drug, and then you’re adding something more addictive into that same drug, so you’re making it that much more difficult to stop using it,” said Grandy.

“All these drugs have become significantly more addictive than ever before,” he added.

This, Grandy said, becomes extremely dangerous when a person with a mental illness such as depression, turns to substances to find relief. While someone might ordinarily seek counselling, they chose to lean on drugs instead.

“Then they find those drugs are cut with extremely addictive substances like opioids, it’s extremely difficult for that person to ever land on their feet again,” said Grandy.

“It just keeps happening, and happening, and happening. I think the addiction part of it is not like anything we’ve seen before, because of the introduction of the opioids inside these drugs. It just makes it almost impossible to get off that.”

One of the biggest issues with the introduction of opioids into other drugs is that there is no guarantee the measurement is consistent. Further to this, if the person who received a higher dosage of fentanyl uses alone and overdoses, the likelihood of them surviving is slim.

This increase in addiction and suspected overdoses has had an impact on both the police force and the community of Penticton.

Grandy explained that as the increase in addiction grows, so does the property crime rate. Those who are addicted, he explained, will do almost anything for their next fix. Sometimes, they resort to crime in order to ensure this happens.

This, in turn, has an impact on the community.

“I think citizens are extremely frustrated,” he said. “We’re all frustrated. And some of us here fall victim to people stealing stuff from our properties too – this is everybody’s concern.

“It’s just like – at what point – what can be done to get a handle on that?”

With this, RCMP are finding it harder to deal with property crimes such as theft. Grandy explained that in order to convict someone of a crime, it takes a significant amount of resources. With persons crimes an ongoing issue, police hear frustration from those who are waiting to hear back about who stole one of their possessions.

“It doesn’t make it (property crimes) any less of a problem, it certainly is, and we wish we could solve all these problems, and find peoples bikes, charge, have these people convicted and sentenced to jail, and that just doesn’t work like that,” he said.

He noted that it’s a ‘shame’ we’re living in a society where this happens, but right now, it’s reality. To combat this, RCMP is focusing efforts on preventing crimes from happening in the first place.

Prevention and education on what people should do to protect themselves, are big priorities for police departments across the province of B.C.

Asked if there is a way to combat the opioid crisis, Grandy said that the RCMP is there to support what society and the government is enacting. Although he can’t speak for the health authority, he suggested a combative measure would be to ensure immediate resources are available for those who need help.

For those addicted to substances like opioids, they may only wish to seek help for a very short amount of a time – a short glimmer of realization.

“If you’re empowered enough that you actually want to do it (get treatment) there should be a place for you to get it immediately – that help — and that doesn’t exist,” said Grandy.

“If you’re really determined to get that help, you could probably find a way to get it but that’s going to take a lot of willpower and it’s not going to be immediate. And maybe after two to three weeks of waiting to get into that facility or treatment program, you’re not interested anymore.

“Immediacy needs to be a big thing.”

In many cases, facilities are either over capacity or require a substantial amount of money to be accepted into, explained Grandy.

“You’re relying on non-profit and other types of programs that are not immediate,” said Grandy.

Even if a person is admitted into a facility or treatment program, Grandy says another large issue lies in what happens when the person gets out. At this point, something drastic needs to change in this person’s life to ensure they do not return to the same environment they were in before.

“You need to continue to progress in a positive direction, and I think that’s difficult for a lot of people, even if they are successful in a treatment program,” explained Grandy.

Many end up returning to their previous environment because it is where they have their connections, their family. Finding their way back to this same lifestyle, they can again fall prey to a life fuelled by addiction.

“It is so complex, and it’s not as easy as telling somebody, ‘oh you should get treatment, you should get off the drugs and your life will be better’.

“No, I don’t think it will be. We haven’t built our society in a way that facilitates somebody being able to go through all of that; the addiction, the homelessness, the crime, to treatment, to getting out, and then building themselves back up. (It’s) so difficult to build yourself back up after that,” said Grandy.

Asked if part of the problem is how society views the issue, or whether there are common misconceptions about the issue, Grandy said the problem lies in misinformation.

“There needs to be education on this, people need to know the reality of the situation,” he said. “Once everybody is more educated on what everybody else is doing, and isn’t doing, and can’t do, and what’s available and what isn’t available, then you’ll know where the gaps are.”

Locally, Grandy said there are many programs active in the community, and well-used by many. Interior Health’s Mental Health and Substance Use Centre is very active in the community and at the shelters, and will sit down with anybody and provide counselling and support regarding addictions.

The Community Crisis Response Team works with those in crisis, at risk of harming themselves or others.

Locally, Pathways Addictions Counselling is a well-used resource by the community providing a large variety of programs for those who need help.

In addition, Martin Street, Foundry Penticton, Penticton Harm Reduction Program, Substance Use Connections, Substance Use Day Treatment, Support Recovery Beds with The Bridge Youth and Family Services, stabilization/withdrawal services in Kelowna or Kamloops (not recommended for Opioid Use Disorder), are programs provided in partnership with Interior Health to support those suffering from addiction.

Opioid Agonist Treatment (OAT), is available at several locations within Penticton, as well as an overdose prevention outreach nurse. In addition, there are inpatient treatment beds located in Burnaby, Surrey, Vancouver, Vancouver Island or Vernon.

Heading into the new year, IH says they recently established a local community action team which is exploring options to enhance overdose prevention services in Penticton.

In the new year, Interior Health will be challenging others to participate in their Naloxone Challenge, an initiative launched in October in Penticton and Princeton. To date, IH has had six Penticton organizations participate in this training, and encourages anyone interested to contact 250-462-1050.

Asked if there are any services still lacking in Penticton, Grandy said that he would like to see an accessible overdose clinic or treatment facility, somewhere in the province.

“It can be anywhere really, but it has to be accessible. So if somebody from Penticton… wants to get into that facility, and it’s in Kamloops, as long as they have a means to get there, I don’t think it really matters where it is. It just needs to be somewhere, and it needs to be available, on an almost immediate-need basis,” he said.

As a local, small detachment, Grandy said the RCMP will continue to support the community in all of this – including continuing to work with IH, as well as continuing to meet at the Community Action Support Table (CAST) which brings many in the community together every week to discuss people who are at risk.

“I think we’re on the right path as far as what we can do,” said Grandy. “We’re not siloed anymore. We’re involved, we’re making those connections with resources and committees in the community. Because that’s the only way we’re ever going to come up with any real solution.

“It’s not going to be any one organization or department, it’s going to be a collaborative approach amongst everybody.”

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