Harm reduction advocates expect the federal government to neglect the ongoing opioid epidemic ahead of this fall’s election.
“Measures that keep people who use drugs alive are not popular with the average person who hasn't been touched by this crisis,” said Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm. “They probably don't have mass appeal in an election year.”
Schulz is a part of a growing movement of harm reduction activists and health experts urging the federal government to prevent future fentanyl-related overdoses by implementing the sale of regulated heroin.
“What we are dealing with now is really a toxic, illicit market,” said Schulz, whose son, Danny, died from a fentanyl-related overdose in 2014. “We feel that the most rapid and most effective way to save lives is to give people who need drugs, safe pharmaceutical-grade drugs.”
Last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada released figures that showed more than 10,300 Canadians have died from opioid-related overdoses between January 2016 and September 2018. The majority of those cases are believed to be related to fentanyl or a fentanyl analog.
Schulz says providing a safe supply of opioids to those who already use would not only prevent many overdoses but could work to counteract the stigma and crime that surrounds opioid use.
“When people have that access, it would also normalize their lives and reduce crime dramatically,” she said. “It would cut out the criminal element that is currently distributing the illicit drugs, and it would cut out any kind of activity people engage in to obtain those drugs.”
In December, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said the introduction of a safe supply of opioids was “being actively reviewed and discussed” with provinces and territories.
This year’s federal budget also promised $30.5 million over five years plus $1 million of ongoing annual funding “to address persistent gaps in harm reduction and treatment,” including “efforts to expand access to a safe supply of prescription opioids.”
According to Schulz, that’s not nearly enough.
But the federal government may shift its attention to harm reduction after the election, she said.
Others aren’t as hopeful.
Garth Mullins, who hosts and produces Crackdown, a podcast that follows harm reduction activists in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, says Canada won’t see radical policy change until mass public protest demands it.
“Nobody is going to give us anything good unless we twist their arm,” said Mullins. “Everything that's good in our society, from healthcare to having a weekend, has been won through struggle. The fact that safe injection sites are here—they were won through struggle.”
“When we raise the political costs to government and to leaders of doing nothing, then maybe it will come.”
On Tuesday, drug users and harm reduction advocates across the country took to the streets as part of the National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis. This year’s theme was a demand for a safe supply of opioids, a proposal that Mullins firmly supports.
“It's not a public health emergency. It's a public policy emergency,” said Mullins. “Those in charge are wringing their hands about what to do, but the people in charge are the people who are causing it.”
Schulz believes the recent legalization of cannabis may help explain the Liberal government’s reluctance to focus on drug policy right now.
“There was a lot of criticism around the cannabis legalization from conservative elements,” said Schulz, who lives in Edmonton. “That is probably as much controversy around drug policy as the current government wants to deal with before the next election.”
Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, says it’s true the Liberals haven’t spent much time talking about the opioid crisis recently. Instead, he says the party has focused on economic appeals that are aimed at voters in the centre, such as help for first-time homebuyers.
However, that could change.
“It looks like [the Liberals] are in for a fight,” said Prest. “At the moment, they may be looking to avoid creating additional controversy, but there may come a time where effectively finding sharp wedge issues actually plays to their benefit.”
The New Democratic Party might also steer the election conversation towards the overdose crisis.
In 2017, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called on the Liberal government to declare the crisis a national public health emergency and pushed for the decriminalization of personal drug use. The NDP has also urged the federal government to explore potential “criminal charges against opioid pharmaceutical companies.”
Jenny Kwan, an NDP member of parliament for Vancouver East, told VICE all options should be put on the table.
“If our goal is to save lives then we need to actually act accordingly,” she said.
Kwan, who participated in the National Day of Action march in Vancouver, says she personally supports a policy of safe supply, but wouldn’t say whether the NDP’s election platform will feature that proposal.
VICE reached out to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor for comment on the government’s views on safe supply policy, but did not receive a response before publication.
“If the NDP ever starts to gain traction, absolutely we would expect to see the Liberals pivot and start to take on some of those issues,” said Prest.
But, for now, he says the Liberals are most concerned about losing voters to the Conservatives who currently lead in the polls.
While Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer recently said his government would “prioritize” the opioid crisis if elected, he places more emphasis on drug rehabilitation. In the past, Scheer has also expressed reservations about decriminalization and safe injection sites, both measures that experts insist help reduce the risk of overdose-related death.
Whether it becomes an election issue or not, harm reduction advocates like Schulz and Mullins will continue to fight for policies they believe can save lives.
“Danny died such a preventable death,” said Schulz. “I know it sounds like such a cliche. Every parent says that you don't want other families to suffer the same fate, but that is ultimately what it is about.”
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