Justin Trudeau Defends Canada's Opioid Response as Death Toll Nears Record

Canada’s chief public health officer says data suggests 2020 will be the country's worst year for overdose deaths on record.
Justin Ling
Montreal, Canada
October 30, 2020, 7:04pm
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

This year could be the deadliest on record in the drug poisoning epidemic that has slammed Canada, compounding and worsening the problems of COVID-19.

But while Ottawa spends billions to develop treatments and vaccines to crush the coronavirus, a new report from the Public Health Agency of Canada says things may only worsen for drug users, if immediate action isn’t taken.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued to laud his government’s action to combat the crisis, insisting he has taken “strong action to fight the opioid epidemic,” in response to a question from VICE News on Friday.  

Trudeau rattled off action his government has taken, including expanding access to safe consumption sites, making overdose-reversing drug naloxone more readily available, and providing prescription drug alternatives to users.

Yet access to services remains spotty across the country. There are no supervised consumption sites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and sites tend to be grouped around major cities. There are open questions as to whether the measures taken to fight the opioid crisis will be effective against burgeoning methamphetamine abuse.

But his own public health agency confirms that things are worsening, not getting better. On Thursday, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, released her annual report, which focused on some of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Simulations run by the public health agency report that increased prices, increased or unstable levels of fentanyl in the drug supply, a lack of support services, and isolation caused by the COVID-19 will likely mean the “opioid overdose deaths may increase in 2020 beyond the levels seen at the peak of the opioid crisis in 2018.”

The data suggests it’s already the case. Over 1,200 people have died in British Columbia in the first nine months of this year, worse than the 2018 peek. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario are all reporting significant spikes in overdose and poisoning deaths.

Reporting standards on overdose deaths are inconsistent across the country, but VICE News found at least 2,898 Canadians died of overdose or poisonings in the first nine months of the year.

On Wednesday, Tam told CBC’s Power & Politics that overdose prevention sites and harm reduction measures were necessary, but suggested they just weren’t enough.

“I do feel that we have to have good debate, discussion, about the decriminalization of simple possession of drugs, because we can’t arrest our way out of that crisis, and so it is time,” she said, acknowledging that many of her local colleagues have endorsed the call to decriminalize. 

When VICE News asked health officers across the country their views, six, in addition to Tam, called for some form of decriminalization or legalization. “This is a good opportunity to address that as a society,” Tam said.

Pressed on the fact that his senior most health advisor is pushing him on decriminalization, and that the actions his government has taken have not reduced the overdose trend, Trudeau reverted to the same talking points he has used for years.

“We know that there is no one solution to stopping the opioid epidemic,” he said. Trudeau insisted that “we are looking at a broad range of actions,” but specified none.

“We will still continue to listen to the best advice of experts and public health officials as we look for other steps we can take as we continue to fight that epidemic,” Trudeau added.

To date, decriminalization has been endorsed by the chief public health officers of Canada, British Columbia, Vancouver, Toronto, Quebec, Montreal; the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police; B.C. Premier John Horgan; Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart; the New Democratic Party; the members of the Liberal Party of Canada; Liberal Members of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Hedy Fry.

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