Last December, Conservative MP John Barlow gave an impassioned speech in the House of Commons about someone close to him who had overdosed in Calgary near his riding of Foothills.
“We actually had to break into her apartment,” Barlow said. “When I saw her there, the look on her face and the condition she was in was permanently scarred into my brain.”
He went on to describe how he and his wife took the woman to the hospital.
“The things that were going through my mind were not, ‘I wish I could get her to a safe injection site,’ or ‘I sure wish that these drugs were decriminalized,’” Barlow said. “What we have to do is put our priority in treating these people.”
Barlow’s speech encompassed some of the ongoing discussions, and disagreements, over how to deal with the worsening opioid overdose crisis and an increasingly toxic illegal drug supply.
Public health experts and advocates say harm reduction tools such as supervised consumption sites are crucial to keeping people alive and are a vital aspect of evidence-based treatment options. Meanwhile, many conservative politicians and law enforcement officials say that cracking down on the supply and treatment should be the top priorities.
The main federal parties hold a range of ideas on how to deal with the opioid crisis, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 11,000 people across Canada since 2016.
The Liberal Party’s drug policy record
With overdose death rates linked to opioids such as fentanyl spiking as the Liberals took power in 2015, especially in British Columbia, the government was forced to confront the matter. Though the Liberals have not yet released their 2019 electoral platform, they have a record of action on the file.
Health Canada spearheaded a number of progressive measures, easing the federal restrictions around opening supervised consumption sites and legislation that provided some legal protections for people who called 911 during an overdose. The Liberal government repeatedly said, however, that it would not decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs, something that advocates say is necessary to properly curb overdoses and the tainted drug supply.
The federal health agency also began piecing together national data on overdose deaths for the first time and announced a one-time $150-million “emergency treatment fund” for provinces and territories to provide “evidence-based” treatment for people with addictions. It has also approved prescription heroin as a treatment option for adults with chronic opioid use disorder.
However, public health experts say the Liberals have not gone far enough.
“We haven’t yet gotten close to the scale with the public health response that we need to be able to be combatting the current emergency situation,” Gillian Kolla, a harm reduction worker and public health researcher at the University of Toronto, told Global News.
Kolla said the federal government needs to immediately declare a public health emergency over the opioid crisis, which she described as “the largest health crisis of our generation.” Doing so would send a signal that officials are taking it seriously and that they’re prepared to utilize “the full resources of the federal government,” she added.
“Some of the measures that might follow this are things like decriminalization of the possession of all currently illegal drugs, things like rapidly expanding and scaling up access to safer supply across the country,” she said.
Kolla pointed to a number of provinces, such as Ontario and Alberta, that have scaled back support for overdose prevention sites.
“We really need the federal government to step up and ensure that access to this life-saving service is ensured, even if provincial governments are threatening them,” she said.
As a Liberal MP, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith consistently pushed the government to go further, even introducing a bill to decriminalize simple drug possession in the days before the House of Commons rose earlier this year. He has said he will reintroduce the bill if re-elected.
“If we want people to access treatment options, removing the No. 1 stigma associated with seeking treatment, which is a criminal sanction for low-level possession, is an incredibly important step,” Erskine-Smith, who is now running as the Liberal candidate for Beaches-East York, told Global News.
The NDP wants to make big pharma pay
The NDP platform released earlier this year includes a section entitled “Confronting the opioid public health emergency.” At his campaign launch on Wednesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh reiterated that his party would combat the opioid crisis through funding for addiction and mental health services.
The party states in its platform that if it forms government, the NDP would declare a public health emergency over the matter and “commit to working with all levels of government, experts and Canadians to end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction.”
The platform also says the party will work with provincial governments to “support overdose prevention sites and expand access to treatment on demand” for people with addictions. It also vows to investigate the role of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid crisis and make them provide compensation for the “public costs” stemming from it.
In 2017, the previous Alberta NDP government declared an opioid public health crisis, and a number of health authorities there opened up supervised consumption sites, with the Lethbridge site being among the busiest in the world.
Alberta’s current government under Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party has faced criticism after the province froze funds proposed for new supervised consumption facilities in favour of funding for treatment and recovery. Kenney also said his government would study the impacts of supervised consumption sites.
On Wednesday, the start of the federal election campaign, Kenney announced more than $80 million in funds over four years for 4,000 treatment spaces.
He told a news conference: “Harm reduction efforts certainly have a place within the spectrum of public health responses to the soaring opioid death rate, but not at the expense of life-saving treatment and recovery.”
The approach by Kenney mirrors that of Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, whose government halted funding for some overdose prevention sites in the province under a new model.
The Conservative Party’s crackdown on opioids
Though the federal Conservative Party, like the Liberals, has not yet released its electoral platform, a spokesperson told Global News in an email: “It is tragic that we have failed these Canadians to the point where drug injection sites are often the only focus of discussion instead of a comprehensive approach to addiction.”
The spokesperson wrote that the Liberals should “enact heavy mandatory minimum sentences to crack down on drug traffickers” and that the party has “star candidates on their team who have actively pushed for the legalization of dangerous, hard drugs.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his party “are focused on helping Canadians struggling with addiction through recovery and prevention,” the spokesperson continued.
In May, Scheer told municipal leaders at a meeting in Quebec that the federal government ought to “hold China accountable” for the flow of illicit fentanyl into Canada.
Kolla pointed to the previous federal Conservative government under Stephen Harper, during whose tenure little funding was made available for research or programming around harm reduction. Though overdose rates were not as high as they are now under the Conservatives, Kolla said the Harper approach would perpetuate the situation.
“At this point in the opioid overdose crisis, that type of reaction would be absolutely devastating and would be directly leading to preventable lives lost,” she said.
“Harm reduction and treatment work well together and are both a very necessary part of any effort to address the opioid overdose crisis. The way that people get into treatment, oftentimes, is through harm reduction programs through supervised consumption.”
Green Party plan for decriminalization and safe supply
The Green Party’s position on drug policy overlaps with that of the NDP. Party Leader Elizabeth May has called for the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs in Canada and says that a government led by the Greens would declare a public health emergency regarding opioid overdoses.
The Greens have also said they would support a safe supply of opioids and are expected to release their election platform this week.
During a visit to Barrie, Ont. in July, Elizabeth May said decriminalization would allow people to more easily test their drugs “and assess that they have fentanyl or not.”
Racelle Kooy, Green candidate for Victoria and the party’s shadow cabinet critic for mental health and addiction, told Global News that her community and province have been especially impacted by high rates of fentanyl overdose deaths.
“With fentanyl, it is something that is getting into all levels of illicit drugs and whether it’s on the streets or in the suburbs,” said Kooy, adding that she just lost a cousin in Thunder Bay to an overdose.
“We see drug use and those issues as a health issue more than a criminal issue.”
- Global News