Where They Stand: On the Toxic Drug Crisis

·6 min read

When drug policy advocate Leslie McBain looks through the platforms of Canada’s major political parties, she wonders whether they understand the toxic drug crisis that has killed more than 21,000 Canadians since 2016.

“It’s way down the list,” said McBain, one of the founders of Moms Stop the Harm, an advocacy group of parents who have lost family members to drug-related harms or substance abuse. “We have not heard a lot about it.”

While progress has been made in some areas, McBain said much is missing in the federal government’s response and that lives are on the line.

“We want them to talk about decriminalization in an educated way. We want them to talk about legal regulation similar to alcohol, tobacco and cannabis,” McBain said.

“We want them to talk about a declaration of a public health emergency. We want to know how much money they’re willing to spend on these things, and we don’t hear that.”

Safe drug supply, which McBain said is the most important intervention to stop deaths, is at the forefront of at least two party platforms.

The Greens want to declare a national emergency over the overdose crisis and safe supply to stabilize and connect people to health and social services.

Paul Manly, the incumbent Green candidate for Nanaimo-Ladysmith, said in an interview the war on drugs has been a “total failure.”

“We need a system to connect people to help, and help without stigma or shame,” said Manly, who lost a cousin to a fentanyl overdose in 2017.

The NDP also wants to declare the crisis a national emergency and use federal resources to enact safe supply and decriminalization quickly.

It also wants a national inquiry into the possible role of pharmaceutical companies in the crisis with the goal of obtaining compensation for victims and their families.

Ottawa has been absent from the response to the drug crisis for too long, Peter Julian, incumbent NDP candidate in New Westminster-Burnaby, said in an interview.

“This is a downloaded crisis. The federal government has never taken this seriously, and they left it to cities and provinces,” Julian said. “Federal government resources available are enormous, and they never responded with the size and scope required.”

Neither party specified a dollar amount for spending on an emergency response.

McBain said Green party leaders and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have met with Moms Stop the Harm, and she believes they show the deepest understanding among the political parties of the poisoned drug crisis.

But no party is talking about legalizing and regulating drugs like heroin and cocaine similar to the way alcohol, cannabis and tobacco are regulated.

Garth Mullins, a Vancouver journalist and drug policy advocate, said he also wants more action on decriminalization. The City of Vancouver asked the federal government nearly six months ago for an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to effectively legalize drug possession within the city, but it has not received a response.

“If parties are saying anything like decriminalization, they should say specifically if you elect [us], one of our first acts the first month will be to approve that... application,” Mullins said.

All parties have said drug use is a health issue rather than a criminal one, but last fall Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said decriminalization would take a back seat to safe supply.

The Liberals have touted safe supply pilot projects, which drug policy advocates say are not at the scale and access level needed to save lives. The Liberal party did not respond to a Tyee request for comment or an interview by publication.

McBain said federal funding for a safe supply pilot in B.C. is “a big step,” but it doesn’t go nearly far enough considering the number of people who are dying from tainted drugs. McBain noted the Liberals have supported harm reduction and safe consumption sites, but have not declared a public health emergency.

The Conservatives, so far the only federal party to detail their planned spending, want to allot $325 million on 1,000 new treatment beds and 50 recovery centres in communities across Canada. An additional $1 billion would go toward Indigenous mental health and drug treatment programs.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole recently said he would support harm reduction and not fight supervised consumption sites, and that people who are addicted should be helped and not punished. But he stopped short of supporting widespread decriminalization or Vancouver’s application.

Mullins said he was pleasantly surprised to see the federal Conservatives’ platform emphasize that addiction should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one.

But the platform does not mention harm reduction or safe supply and, given the party’s previous track record, Mullins said he doesn’t trust the Conservatives. When Stephen Harper was prime minister, the Conservative government refused to grant Canada’s first safe injection site, Insite, a permanent exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The Tyee sent several interview requests to the Conservatives for this story, but did not hear back.

McBain and Mullins say the party platform’s focus on expanding treatment and recovery misses the mark.

Treatment is important, but with so many people dying from poisoned drugs, it should not be the focus, McBain said.

In 2020, 1,728 British Columbians died of drug toxicity, the highest number ever recorded. The number will be even higher this year if current trends continue. B.C. currently has the highest rate of drug toxicity deaths per capita in the country.

“They’re looking at people who are addicted as people who need to be fixed, and that’s not a bad thing. But that’s not the priority right now. The priority is to keep people alive with a safe, regulated, legal supply of drugs,” McBain said.

“Dead people don’t recover.”

The policies in some of the party platforms will do more than others to prevent deaths, McBain and Mullins said.

But how parties frame the issue matters if voters are going to understand the action needed, said McBain.

All the parties use “opioid crisis” rather than “overdose” or “drug poisoning” in their platforms, which McBain and Mullins say underscores a lack of understanding that the harm is in drug policies.

Both Manly and Julian said the terminology is less important as long as tangible action is taken to address the crisis.

“When I’m on the doorsteps, they reference it as an ‘opioid crisis,’” said Julian of his campaigning. “I’m more concerned with solutions.”

Changing minds, however, is also important, Manly said. He said fear of being perceived as promoting drug use has prevented the Liberals from taking necessary action on safe supply and decriminalization while in government.

“There are lots of social conservatives in the House [of Commons], and I think that gives Liberals pause to take action,” said Manly. “But it’s affecting everyone, many Conservative ridings as well. We need sensible drug policy everywhere.”

Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter and Jen St. Denis, The Tyee

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