VICTORIA -- In a progressive and potentially precedent-setting move, Port Hardy RCMP will make prescription alcohol available for eligible residents who are in police custody.

An RCMP pilot project called the Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program is focusing on a region of Vancouver Island with high rates of intoxication-related police calls and a deeply troubling past for its Indigenous population. 

“Addiction is a medical issue," says Port Hardy RCMP Cmdr. Chris Voller. "It often bleeds into criminality, but understanding what led us there to begin with and being proactive in our approaches is how we are going to be progressive and start working on things that haven’t yet been achieved but we know we need to work towards.”

Mounties say calls for intoxicated individuals in the region are far above the provincial average for similar-sized areas. 

Officers say due to concerns with withdrawal they are consistently having to monitor people in their jail cells and often need to take them to the hospital for care. 

The pilot project brings a trained nurse and outreach worker into the local jail and offers individuals prescription doses of alcohol.

The treatment can allow a severely alcohol-dependent person to continue normal activities and not require costly medical treatment and police resources. 

The program can also be administered at a person's home after a police incident which doesn’t require a trip to jail. 

“Methadone is often administered in police detachments and alcohol, when prescribed, can be the same thing,” says Voller. “There’s no difference, we just need to be more progressive in how we show care.”

The Port Hardy region is home to a large population of First Nations residential school survivors and their families. 

In the 1960s, several Port Hardy area First Nations were also relocated from traditional territories by the federal government and were not provided adequate housing. 

The RCMP says that as the federal government takes a more forward approach to reconciliation, they too are forcing themselves to understand the pain of the past and how it impacts people today. 

“The government wants to see reconciliation, the government wants to see meaningful action taken, and the RCMP does too.” 

While the pilot project on northern Vancouver Island is focusing on an Indigenous population, the program is open to everyone.

To be eligible an individual must undergo medical screening and be deemed appropriate for prescription alcohol therapy.