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Opioid crisis 'top of mind' for local candidates

The local candidates for the three major political parties agree there needs to be a greater emphasis on helping people who are living with an opioid addiction instead of treating it as a criminal issue
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Sonny Spina, Conservative party of Canada candidate for the riding of Sault Ste. Marie. In 2017, while a police officer, Spina helped organize a town hall meeting with Sault Ste. Marie Drug Strategy partners and says the issue is 'top of mind' for him during this election. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday file photo

Three local candidates vying to be Sault Ste. Marie's member of parliament after the next election all agree the opioid crisis should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal issue, but there are differences in the ways in which each party is promising to deal with the issue.

SooToday spoke with three of the local candidates to get their thoughts on the opioid crisis, harm reduction, treatment and possible decriminalization of hard drugs.

Incumbent Terry Sheehan said his government has made historic investments in programs and services supporting mental health and addictions in Sault Ste. Marie and across Canada and he plans to continue if reelected.

“We are going to continue to do everything we can to save lives, to support people and support communities because it’s really important,” said Sheehan.

The Liberal plan has included supporting safe consumption sites and safe drug supply in some communities, but so far those programs have not been built in Sault Ste. Marie.

“I know there are a couple of groups looking at a safe consumption site,” said Sheehan. “We have opened dozens of those across the country – there’s one in Thunder Bay that just opened – but that means a large community consultation. That work is underway.”

Sheehan said the Liberals are focused on reducing harms, prevention, treatment and enforcement.

Conservative candidate Sonny Spina said the Liberals have been in power throughout the opioid crisis and it has only gotten worse over those years. As a former police officer, Spina helped to organize the first community roundtable on opioids in 2017.

”We were calling then on the government to create help programs — we haven’t seen that come into effect and we have seen it get worse in our community and in our country and COVID has not done any favours for overdoses, in fact they have nearly doubled,” said Spina.

The Conservative leader Erin O’Toole recently said people living with opioid addiction should be helped, not dealt with through the criminal justice system. The Conservative platform calls for an increase in the number of treatment sites across the country, as well as increased enforcement.

“People who are users of opioids are not the enemy — they are in health crisis and they need help,” said Spina. “Where we need to target our resources and give front line police officers the resources they need is to help tackle the people who are importing drugs into our country and the people who are distributing those drugs to people in our community

“For me this issue hasn’t changed, it’s always been a health issue,” said Spina. “Addictions and crime are two big issues we need to address in our community. For myself they are top of mind.”

The NDP platform is taking the concept one step further by calling for the decriminalization of hard drugs. That echoes a call for decriminalization made earlier this year by the Association of Chiefs of Police of Canada.

Local candidate Marie Morin-Strom said an NDP government would immediately declare a public health emergency to help deal with the opioid crisis.

“That’s something we would like to see the federal government do so we can work with all levels of government to end criminalization so people can get the help that they need without being afraid that the boogeyman is going to jump out and arrest them just for declaring that they need help,” said Morin-Strom. “At the same time it is important to find and prosecute people who are trafficking and profiting from drug sales.”

In her work as a teacher, Morin-Strom said she has seen the effects of opioid addiction first 
hand and agrees there hasn’t been enough support by the current federal government to tackle the issue.

“We have a lot of students, a lot of families and a lot of people in our community who are in crisis and need help now,” said Morin-Strom. “It’s very difficult to help families to manage these crises without adequate support from the community.”

Morin-Strom said an NDP government would also seek to eliminate issues that sometimes lead to addiction and mental health issues in the first place.

“Ultimately what we need to do is look at how we, in the long term, reduce addiction and how do we prevent people from falling into that,” she said. “That comes from investment in anti-poverty measures like education, universal pharmacare, health care for people who don’t have extended health benefits and affordable housing.”

When asked about decriminalization of hard drugs, Sheehan said he hasn’t been approached on that topic. The NDP and Conservatives have both released full election platforms, while the Liberals have yet to do so.

“We are going to have more to say on the overall opioid crisis in our platform in the next few days as new things are launched,” said Sheehan. “I think the biggest thing that needs to happen is for us to recognize it as a health issue because Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives just haven’t been consistent on the issue.”

While the Conservatives support treating the opioid crisis as a health issue, it has not taken the step of calling for decriminalization.

“There is a root cause to crime and social disorder in our community and a lot of it stems from the drug problem in our community,” said Spina. “People understand that and they understand it is not the criminal justice system’s role to solve that problem. They understand we have to address the underlying root cause of the issue in order to solve crime and social disorder.”

Spina said the opioid crisis has evolved quickly and it has to be addressed with urgency.

“I know there is probably not a family in this community who hasn’t been impacted in some way by addictions, and that is a scary thing. We need to make sure we take care of these folks and that we put a real plan in place to deal with that,” he said.

Sheehan said he was moved during a recent visit to a local memorial for people who died by overdose.

“Recently I was down in Jamestown at some of the memorials that are in place and was able to talk to a lot of people,” said Sheehan. “It’s going to take all of us together to combat this very serious issue."