Slowly Dying: Neighbors describe crime wave amid Nanaimo’s tax-payer funded opioid programs
"Work eight hours in my shoes in a liquor store and you’ll see what we’re talking about”: Nanaimo retail worker on opioid epidemic
In October, The Bureau published an investigative story of mine which recounted how safer supply programs in Nanaimo, British Columbia, are being widely defrauded and flooding communities with opioids and crime.
This story follows up with more testimony from Nanaimo illustrating how bad government policy is destroying lives and blighting cities.
Widely available in Canada since 2020, safer supply programs claim to reduce overdoses and deaths by distributing free, taxpayer-funded pharmaceutical alternatives to potentially-tainted illicit substances. Canadian programs typically dole out hydromorphone, an opioid as potent as heroin, to mitigate consumption of street fentanyl – supervised consumption is rarely required.
There is ample evidence that recipients regularly sell (“divert”) most of their hydromorphone on the black market to purchase stronger substances, which has caused the street price of hydromorphone to collapse by up to 95 per cent and fuelled new addictions, especially among youth.
My previous article described findings from a visit I made to Nanaimo last summer, where I focused on a building, located on 55 Victoria Road, where three clinics and a pharmacy (Outreach Pharmacy) prescribe and dispense safer supply.
Interviewees for that article, including a whistleblower working inside Outreach Pharmacy, described how, once safer supply became available, drug users began congregating around 55 Victoria Road and menacing neighbors with knives and homemade weapons.
Addicts openly sold their hydromorphone in front of the building – which, according to a group of local teenagers I interviewed, often ended up in the hands of youth.
As safer supply advocates and their government allies continue to deny that these problems exist, I stopped by Nanaimo in October and interviewed more locals, including three residents – Brian, Tammy and Nadine – who recounted the chaos that engulfed their neighborhood after safer supply came to their city.
Brian was a 63-year-old hair stylist who lived near 55 Victoria Road and owned a salon a few streets away. He had moved to Nanaimo in the mid 2000s to raise his family – at the time, the city was safe and his homeless neighbors, who he sometimes cooked meals for, were “sweet and gracious.”
But a few years later, things began to change. As more addicts drifted into the city, the homeless population became increasingly aggressive. Windows were shattered and businesses robbed. The salon was broken into eight times. Every year, things got worse – especially after a large nearby homeless encampment, infamously known as “Discontent City,” popped up in 2018 before being dismantled.
Yet the area remained relatively safe during the day.
“For the most part, it really wasn’t bad. Elderly people could walk down there and feel safe,” Brian told me at his salon. But this changed when 55 Victoria Road began offering safer supply in 2020 – a development which Brian characterized as “armageddon.”
Drug users and dealers flocked to the building. Fights and public overdoses became commonplace, as did fires. At first, Brian stood his ground – though he was old, he still had his black belt in karate.
One night in late 2021, at 3 a.m., he went outside to investigate a commotion on the street. Out of the darkness, a man armed with two wooden sticks “split his head open.” Shocked and in pain, Brian managed to bring his assailant to the ground and “bang him up a little bit.”
The assailant’s buddies arrived and gathered around their now-beaten friend, ready to retaliate, but fled once they heard that Brian had called the cops.
A few nights later, Brian found a man being unruly on a stairwell across 55 Victoria road. When he asked him to leave, the man ”pulled a great big machete out,” so he retreated to his home and called the police.
“I used to have no concern whatsoever of approaching people who were throwing garbage or lighting fires or making a lot of noise and disturbing the neighborhood in the middle of the night. You know, I like to say I’m pretty confident in my skills. But these days? Yeah, I’m actually very cautious – because they’re carrying weapons,” said Brian.
In late 2022, one of the clinics at 55 Victoria Road, AVI Community and Health Services, launched an “enhanced harm reduction” program that dramatically increased safer supply prescribing.
Public violence around the clinic increased in tandem. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars became a constant presence on the street. According to my aforementioned whistleblower, Outreach Pharmacy raised concerns to the clinic and regularly called police regarding drug traffickers who were obviously reselling safer supply, but to no effect.
Last August, Brian was walking down Victoria Road when he bumped into a surprisingly articulate homeless man who was “armed to the hilt.”
The man, who claimed to be a former business owner, explained that many of the local homeless were procuring weapons to deal with the omnipresent dangers of the neighborhood.
“He had machetes and hatchets and knives – he was carrying so many weapons. I was standing there talking to him wondering if I am really out of my mind here,” said Brian.
Shortly after “enhanced harm reduction” was initiated, discarded prescription labels started showing up around the neighborhood – many were for safer supply hydromorphone.
Brian had no idea what they were until his neighbor Collen Middleton, who was collecting and cataloging the labels, explained that neighbors, as well as pharmacy and clinic workers, would observe safer supply clients tearing them off before selling them to drug dealers (Middleton’s experiences were featured in my previous article published by The Bureau).
Brian “absolutely” knew that drug dealing occurred in front of 55 Victoria Road. He often saw people standing in front of the building, who obviously didn’t look like addicts or outreach workers, stealthily exchanging stuff with people coming out of the building’s pharmacy. Now things made sense.
Earlier this year, Brian was interviewed for the documentary “Canada is Dying.” The documentary investigated rising public disorder and safer supply fraud, and included interviews with B.C.-based teenagers who testified that diverted safer supply hydromorphone was being resold to their peers, creating new addictions.
Upon watching the completed documentary with his old friend, Mary (a pseudonym), the two of them asked her daughter if she was aware that safer supply hydromorphone was being resold to youth. The girl said “of course” and seemed surprised that her mother did not already know about this.
Brian’s customers occasionally bring their children with them to their appointments, which gives him an opportunity to have long conversations with youth. Over the past six months, he has spoken with three other teenagers, all children of his customers, who confirmed that hydromorphone pills are wildly popular at their schools and that dealers and homeless people sell these drugs to teens after getting them for free from the government.
Brian had always been progressive-minded, but irresponsible addiction and crime policies, including safer supply, had ruined his neighborhood – the realization plunged him into an identity crisis.
“I’m starting to see, starting to believe, that maybe I was wrong. I was wrong and a lot of things that I believe in, I just now concede, actually don’t work in reality. Those nice utopian ideals, in reality, aren’t how society works. It clearly isn’t working,” he said.
Just a block up the street, there was a small apartment building that almost burned down over the summer. There I interviewed three residents: Tammy, whose apartment was rendered uninhabitable by the fire, and her friend, Nadine, who was accompanied by her husband.
All three were middle-aged, working class and experienced rising crime viscerally, through the harassment inflicted upon them while working in retail.
Tammy had moved to Nanaimo in 2002 and was comfortable in the city for many years – she enjoyed walking to her job downtown each morning. But things went downhill after the homeless encampment popped up. She started feeling worried, then scared.
At first, it was just street girls having sex in the bushes, which was tolerable. Then condoms and needles and garbage became ubiquitous and sketchy characters began to loiter in the area, shouting obscenities at anyone who asked them to leave.
According to Tammy, public disorder rapidly increased again two years ago – and much of it seemed connected to 55 Victoria Road. There were always crowds of street-involved people setting up mini-encampments by the building and making trouble, which had never happened before safer supply. Tammy recalled seeing homeless men walk around the neighborhood with baseball bats hanging out of their bags. One day, she drove by the building and witnessed a man throwing a knife at a telephone pole.
Unlike Tammy, Nadine had only lived in the area for two years and could not say what the neighborhood was like beforehand, but concurred that public disorder was obviously emanating from 55 Victoria Road. There were always people passed out in front of the building, always fights and drug dealing occurring at the nearby “tent city.” She claimed to have seen people die in the area on multiple occasions.
Last winter, a neighbor’s garage was broken into and cleaned out. Both Tammy and her husband had their cars broken into, too. Their neighbor, Adam, had his car “torched” in the spring – the women remembered seeing the charred and melted insides afterwards.
Early one morning this September, Tammy’s husband woke her up and said that their building was on fire. They looked outside and saw that their entire deck patio was “engulfed in flames.”
They fled as their apartment filled with choking smoke.
Elsewhere in the building, Nadine was having her morning cigarette on the balcony when she smelled burning plastic and saw a plume of smoke. Vehicles pulled over on Victoria Road and someone shouted to get out of the building. She screamed at her husband, who was still in bed, that they needed to leave. In her “panic-stricken” rush, she didn’t have time to change her clothes, so she watched her building burn in her pajamas, barefoot.
They later learned that the recycling bins below Tammy’s deck had been lit on fire by the local homeless. They weren’t sure why they had done it – it was summer, so there was no need to keep warm.
Most of the building, including Nadine’s apartment, was saved. But Tammy’s home was rendered inhabitable. At the time of the interview, she was couch-surfing with friends.
“The homeless people have made me homeless,” she said.
Although Nadine’s apartment was spared, the experience traumatized her. “I’m a bit of a Nervous Nellie now,” she said, confessing that, at this point, she feels anxious about leaving the fan on during the night, lest it prevent her from hearing a fire alarm.
“I’ve never had to feel like that in my entire life – the uncertainty of what they might do, and just the stupid shit they do.They’re high and you don’t know what can set them off,” she said.
Both women blamed the government for implementing policies that seemed to actively enable crime. They resented B.C.’s revolving-door justice system, as well as the province’s failing experiment with drug decriminalization, which began at the beginning of this year. As retail workers, they saw the harms of these policies in a way that white collar workers, including government bureaucrats, do not.
Nadine described how shoplifters pillaged local businesses with impunity, and how, at her workplace, thieves were handcuffed only to be immediately released on the street.
Both women knew of several businesses that had been forced to shut down due to relentless theft, which caused them anxiety – what if their employers folded, too? How would they pay their mortgages? And what about worker safety? In the mall that Nadine works in, a dollar store had been robbed by a woman who taped a hypodermic needle to the end of a stick.
“I think the root of the problem is the safer supply that the government seems to think is helping people when actually it’s just making the situation worse,” Nadine said.
“My solution is to put these programs on these politicians’ front lawns and see how they like it,” she said. “Maybe then they’ll do something about it. I think they’ve buried their heads right up their asses, firmly.”
The provincial and federal governments continue to claim that extreme harm reduction policies are working and that safer supply, in particular, has no serious downsides.
Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Ya’ara Saaks, has dismissed criticism of safer supply and ignored repeated open letters from concerned addiction physicians who have asked that safer supply be reformed or abolished to reduce the blackmarket resale of taxpayer-funded opioids.
Nadine and Tammy take issue with politicians and bureaucrats who downplay drug trafficking and public disorder while working in white-collar offices that are insulated from the street.
“Work eight hours in my shoes in a liquor store and you’ll see what we’re talking about,” Nadine said.
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