On Tuesday, International Overdose Awareness Day in the midst of a federal election, British Columbia marked another grim milestone with the revelation that more than 1,000 people died of a drug overdose in the province in the first half of the year.
Drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death for people 19 to 39 in the province, according to Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, who said 2021 looks to be another record year for fatal overdoses.
Although we don’t have access to up-to-date stats from each province, reports suggest the trend is continuing across the country; according to the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, opioid overdoses spiked 75 percent from March to December 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. In June, the Public Health Agency of Canada released modelling projections that said 2,300 people could die of opioid-related deaths each quarter of 2021 if the level of fentanyl in the drug supply increases and policy interventions remain the same.
But while Canada’s major federal parties have spent much of the last year and a half discussing COVID-19 and its impact on Canadians, there’s been far less oxygen spent on the drug poisoning epidemic, which has killed more than 22,000 people since January 2016.
“It’s social murder,” said Karen Ward, a drug policy advisor with the City of Vancouver. Ward says the crisis isn’t about opioids—or any drug for that matter—it’s about failed drug policy that is forcing people to buy poisoned street drugs, leading to preventable deaths.
Despite some progress—the federal government is considering allowing B.C. to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs and the province is expanding safe supply programs including prescription heroin—Ward says politicians aren’t acting with enough urgency. (Safe supply refers to regulated, pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs.)
“I think the Liberal government… were cowards on this file,” Ward said, “and people paid with their lives.”
Recently, two Health Canada-commissioned published reports from the Expert Task Force on Substance Use laid out a number of actions the feds need to take, including decriminalizing simple possession of all drugs, regulating all drugs, expanding safe supply, and replacing the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act with a public health framework for all substances.
In response, Health Minister Patty Hajdu issued a statement thanking the task force and saying “their reports will inform our next steps in drug policy,” but making no other commitments. Two days later, the election was called.
“It was very bland and noncommittal,” said Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, of Hajdu’s response.
“If the Liberals get back in or there's a Liberal/NDP, coalition or the NDP win, I would expect that this report might then gain some legs,” he said. “I would fully expect decriminalization. It's going to happen in the next government and an expansion of safe supply.”
Here’s where all the major parties stand on drug policy reform:
The Liberals platform does not explicitly mention safe supply, though it says the party would invest $500 million in “evidence-based treatment, recognizing that successful treatment is not determined by long-term abstinence.” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has also expressed support for increasing safe supply.
“A re-elected Liberal government will continue to support people facing problematic substance use. Our approach will continue to be informed by public health advice and experts—not ideology,” a party spokesperson told VICE World News.
While federal funding under the Liberals has been used for safe supply pilot projects, critics like Ward say there’s not enough funding and the programs are not cohesive and don’t reach enough people. The Liberals have also refused to declare the overdose epidemic a public health emergency.
The Liberals are stopping short of full decriminalization for personal possession of all drugs, but say they will give cops and Crown attorneys discretion to not lay charges for simple possession and to instead divert them into addictions programs or drug treatment court.
In February, Trudeau’s government introduced a justice reform bill that would repeal mandatory minimum prison sentences on all offences outlined in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act—a Stephen Harper-era measure that has resulted in Black and Indigenous people disproportionately being sent to jail.
However, drug policy reform advocates have said the bill leaves too much authority in the hands of police, who have historically disproportionately arrested Black and Indigenous people for drug crimes.
Rolles said there should be no sanctions of any kind—including forced treatment—for people who use drugs.
“You don't get people with addictions or people with drug problems into treatment and treatment services by criminalizing them or by threatening them,” he said. “What you do is you provide the services that they need… not just treatment services, but things like housing, things like harm reduction services.”
The Liberals say they will also invest funding for public education to reduce the stigma associated with problematic substance use and support the provinces in “creating standards for substance use treatment programs.”
The Liberals have failed to expunge the records of people convicted of cannabis crimes, despite legalizing weed. As of March, fewer than 400 people charged with pot possession had been pardoned under the Liberals’ expedited pardon process, according to CTV News.
The Conservatives’ plan for tackling the overdose crisis focuses on addiction recovery and leading a “drug-free life”; there is no mention of safe supply.
“We will focus on helping people with addictions get the help they need to recover, while law enforcement focuses on dealers and traffickers,” spokesman Matthew Clancy told VICE World News.
“Only a Conservative government will ensure recovery is the overarching goal for the federal framework on substance abuse and get those struggling with addiction the help they need.”
Although the Conservatives’ platform says “the last thing that those suffering from addiction should have to worry about is being arrested,” there is nothing specifying how they would ensure police don’t arrest people who use drugs.
The Conservatives have pledged to invest $325 million to create 1,000 residential drug treatment beds and build 50 recovery centres and to support “land-based treatment programs developed and managed by Indigenous communities.”
The plan does not address the main thing killing people—an increasingly toxic drug supply.
Ward said the plan seems to focus on institutionalization, which she described as a “scary disaster.” She said people’s chances at recovery are better with a home and access to health care.
Rolles said most people arrested for drug crimes don’t need treatment.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told VICE World News he would declare the overdose crisis a public health emergency and take a “health care, compassion, science, and evidence-based approach” to treating it.
If elected to govern, the NDP says it will “end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction,” create a safe supply of regulated alternatives to street drugs, and support the expansion of overdose prevention sites (which operate similarly to safe drug consumption sites.)
The NDP also says it will expand addictions treatments access and “launch an investigation into the role drug companies may have played in fueling the opioid crisis, and seek meaningful financial compensation from them for the public costs of this crisis.”
Ward said the investigation into big pharma is “silly” and a red herring that takes the focus away from bad policy decisions that have exacerbated the overdose crisis.
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