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B.C. hospital memo raises safety concerns over patients' drug use

A leaked memo from a hospital in B.C.'s Northern Health region has sparked questions about the safety of health-care workers. (Shutterstock - image credit)
A leaked memo from a hospital in B.C.'s Northern Health region has sparked questions about the safety of health-care workers. (Shutterstock - image credit)

A leaked memo from a hospital in the Northern Health region advising nurses not to impede patients using illicit drugs raised a firestorm in the B.C. Legislature on Wednesday.

The memo, sent out to staff at the G.R. Baker Hospital in Quesnel, B.C., last July, asks them not to search through patients' personal belongings and take away substances. It also tells staff not to restrict visitors if they suspect they are dropping off illicit substances, and also not to confiscate weapons if they are found.

It came a few months after the possession of small amounts of certain drugs were decriminalized in the province under a three-year pilot project.

While the province says the advice in the memo has since been superseded, the memo sparked concerns for nurses' safety and well-being in the workplace from both opposition politicians and the provincial nurses' union.

"The entire memo is outrageous," said B.C. United MLA Shirley Bond during question period.

"When will the premier put the safety of nurses and other patients first and end his dangerous decriminalization experiment?" Bond later asked.

In response, Health Minister Adrian Dix said the safety of health-care workers was a major priority for the province.

"We said we'd hired 320 relational security officers across 26 acute care hospitals, and we in fact met those targets in exactly the time we said we would do that," Dix said.

Health minister Adrian Dix makes an announcement regarding healthcare workers at VGH in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Health minister Adrian Dix makes an announcement regarding healthcare workers at VGH in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, December 5, 2023.

Health Minister Adrian Dix says the province is in constant communication with health-care workers regarding their safety. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.'s minister of mental health and addictions, said the decriminalization pilot project is one of the tools being used by the province as it grapples with a deadly toxic drug crisis that has claimed thousands of lives.

"Ending this program won't save a single life, not a single life in this province," Whiteside said during question period.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said in a statement that the policy outlined in the memo has since been superseded, and smoking or vaping any substance indoors is prohibited.

"Possession and use of controlled substances are prohibited for all clients in emergency departments, any unit where clients under the age of 18 are present, inpatient psychiatric units and inpatient withdrawal units," the spokesperson wrote.

Staff are now encouraged to offer harm reduction information to patients who are using drugs, according to the spokesperson, who also noted that weapons are not permitted in Northern Health hospitals.

On Thursday morning, Dix reasserted that weapons and smoking of any kind, including drugs and cigarettes, were "absolutely not allowed" in hospitals.

"We take every step to ensure that our nurses and our health sciences professionals are not peace officers, they're health-care workers," he said, but added he understands it can be difficult to enforce these rules in health-care settings.

"Health-care workers need to protect themselves and act in the best interest of themselves and their patients at all times."

Call for more supervised consumption sites

Adriane Gear, president of the B.C. Nurses' Union, says there needs to be a delicate balance between reducing harm for drug users and the health and safety of patients and staff. She says that balance is off in some B.C. hospitals.

"As nurses, we absolutely support harm reduction and we also believe that decriminalization is important. Persons with substance use disorders are better served in a health-care setting than a criminal setting," Gear told CBC News.

"There is a caveat — harm reduction does not mean that reducing harm for the substance user should create harm for the care provider or for other patients," she added.

Gear said, however, that the responsibility should not be on nurses to enforce safety measures while in the workplace. She said policies should be changed to better protect nurses, including by providing more security officers and distributing more personal protective equipment.

She also says that if hospitals are permitting drug use in certain areas, there should be more supervised consumption sites located within acute care settings.

"If you're going to go smoke a cigarette, you would have to go outside to smoke a cigarette," she said. "If you want to consume illicit substances, then you would go to this area to do that.

"Then it's safe for that person, it's safe for everyone."

weapons not allowed, smoking not allowed at all, whatever your'