Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is "as surprised as" British Columbia Premier David Eby after a firm announced it had received Health Canada licence amendments to produce and sell cocaine.
Trudeau said Friday the federal government was "working very quickly" with Adastra Labs of Langley, B.C., "to correct the misunderstanding" caused by the company's statement saying it was looking at commercializing cocaine as part of its business model.
He said Adastra did not have permission to sell cocaine on the "open market," while Health Canada said the firm could only sell to other licence holders, and its licence is for "scientific and medical purposes only."
"Health Canada has contacted the company to reiterate the very narrow parameters of their licence," the federal agency said in a written statement. "If the strict requirements are not being followed, Health Canada will not hesitate to take action, which may include revoking the licence."
On Friday afternoon, Adastra retracted its statements regarding the Health Canada approval.
"The Dealer's Licence issued to Adastra Labs does not permit Adastra Labs to sell coca leaf, psilocybin or cocaine to the general public," it said in a statement. "For cocaine, and under the Dealer's Licence, Adastra Labs is only permitted to sell to other licensed dealers who have cocaine listed on their licence."
This comes as a second B.C. company says it has a licence related to cocaine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.
Victoria's Sunshine Earth Labs, a biosciences firm that "aims to bring a safer supply of drugs to the global market," says it obtained an amended Controlled Drug and Substances Dealer's Licence to include MDMA and cocaine last year.
However, like Adastra, its licence is for authorized medical and research purposes only, and it is not permitted to sell these drugs to the general public, according to Health Canada.
Canada not considering commercial cocaine: PM
In a written statement, Health Canada says it "thoroughly reviews applications" to ensure licensees follow all existing policies on public health and safety.
When asked how many other companies have received similar amendments to their licences, the agency said it does not share or publish the list of companies who have received licences, nor does it discuss the status of applications for licensing amendments due to safety, security and privacy reasons.
Trudeau said commercializing decriminalized cocaine "is not something that this government is looking at furthering."
"I was as surprised as the premier of British Columbia was to see that a company was talking about selling cocaine on the open market or commercializing it," he said, adding that Adastra's licence was "not a permission to sell it commercially or to provide it on an open market."
B.C.'s drug decriminalization policy went into effect at the end of January, allowing individuals 18 and over to possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA without criminal penalties.
The decriminalization is a three-year pilot project.
Licence not part of provincial plan: Eby
The public uproar began after B.C. Opposition leader Kevin Falcon raised the issue during question period at the provincial legislature on Thursday.
In response, Eby said he was "astonished" by the news, and the province had not been notified or consulted by Health Canada on the matter.
"I think that Health Canada needs to have a serious look at what they are doing. I think they have to have a serious look at this company," Eby said.
Eby said Friday that he has spoken to the federal government and that he is "further disturbed" to hear from Health Canada that Adastra "significantly misrepresented the nature of the licence" in an irresponsible manner.
"I find it more than a little bit frustrating that Health Canada is not apparently in line with us in terms of the direction we're going," he said. "We need to work together on the toxic drug crisis and our response to it."
Eby said the licence "is not part of our provincial plan," referring to the ongoing effort to stem the overdose death rate, with an average of more than six people dying every day in B.C. last year.
For its part, Sunshine Labs said it "does not engage in promoting or launching safer supply initiatives" and defers the implementation of policy on decriminalized cocaine, opium and MDMA to experts.
But the company also said the elevated overdose death rate in B.C. coincides with public health officials' reports that the majority of deaths came from occasional, rather than chronic, users.
That means decriminalization may not be enough, Sunshine Labs' statement says, and points to some experts suggesting providing users with "an opportunity to purchase certified drugs with known levels of purity and quantity" as a way to prevent deaths.
"While this notion may be difficult for some to accept, it represents the rational next step," the statement said.