Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Talks needed on decriminalizing hard drugs to address opioid crisis, Tam says

Recent data shows a major spike in the number of people dying from toxic illicit drugs due to the pandemic

The delicate politics of drug policy were on full display this week, as Canada’s chief health officer suggested decriminalizing hard drugs should be discussed to address a spike in opioid overdose deaths, while Health Minister Patty Hajdu insisted decriminalization was not a “silver bullet” solution.

Several provinces — including British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta — have been seeing concerning increases in overdose fatalities since the COVID-19 pandemic began, which Dr. Theresa Tam says is a crisis that is ”escalating as we speak.”

“Canadians should be seized with this particular crisis, which can actually happen to anyone and could also have increased risks right now for people who may be isolating at home,” Tam said during a news conference when asked about the issue on Friday.

Increasing access to a safer supply of drugs and building more supervised consumption sites are among the critical steps needed to reduce opioid deaths, she said.

But she added that all approaches must be considered, including “moving toward a societal discussion on decriminalization.”

A number of officials and groups have called on the federal government to decriminalize hard drugs to address this opioid crisis, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, B.C. Premier John Horgan, as well as medical health officers in British Columbia, Toronto and Montreal.

READ MORE: B.C. premier asks Trudeau to decriminalize illicit drug possession as deaths climb

And with recent data showing a major spike in the number of people dying from toxic illicit drugs due to the pandemic — including a 130 per cent increase in June overdose deaths in B.C. compared to June of last year — the calls for urgent action are getting louder.

B.C.’s Coroner Service has also reported an increase this year in the number of overdose victims with “extreme fentanyl concentrations” present in their bodies.

Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said when the border closed, the drug supply in Canada became more dangerous as more drugs were made or altered in Canada.

Pandemic restrictions also saw safe injection sites and methadone clinics offering more limited services or closing altogether to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving drug users isolated with more toxic drugs, which is a deadly combination, MacPherson said.

Earlier this week, the federal Liberal government announced steps toward promised changes to federal drug policy, including a 60-day national consultation on supervised-consumption sites with a view to making them better and $582,000 in funding for a new Toronto project to offer a safe supply of opioids to reduce overdose deaths.

Separately, federal prosecutors are now also being instructed to criminally prosecute only the most serious drug possession offences that raise public safety concerns and to find alternatives outside the criminal justice system for the rest, including simple possession cases.

That directive is contained in a new guideline issued by the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, who is independent from the federal Justice Department.

“You cannot arrest your way out of an opioid crisis,” Tam said Friday, applauding the directive as a “step in the right direction.”

But MacPherson says these measures are “too little, too late.”

“COVID has just made everything so much worse and we still seem to be stuck in a position of pilot projects, interim funding, incremental steps towards something that should have happened long ago,” he said.

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition has long been pushing for decriminalization as a public health response that would to stop stigmatizing people with addictions.

“Drug prohibition doesn’t work. Alcohol prohibition didn’t work. You cannot keep pretending that prohibition will work if we try it just a little bit harder, it’s fundamentally flawed,” he said.

“We need to change it, and that’s why you’re hearing calls from medical health officers for decriminalization, for safe supply programs, for legal regulated drugs on the market. We just have to get there sooner, rather than later, otherwise many more people are going to die.”

The Liberal government’s approach to illegal drugs has been shifting toward viewing it more as a public health issue than a criminal one.

In their first mandate, the Liberals legalized the recreational use of cannabis. However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected calls to decriminalize possession of other harder drugs, despite a resolution passed at the last Liberal convention calling for such an approach.

When he appointed Hajdu as health minister last November, many advocates of progressive drug policies were encouraged, given Hajdu’s past advocacy and work experience in harm-reduction strategies.

She worked for nine years on the substance abuse and injury prevention program for the Thunder Bay District Public Health Unit, including spearheading the northern Ontario city’s drug strategy.

Asked about decriminalization Friday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said she doesn’t believe that there is any “silver bullet” to ending problematic substance use or addressing the opioid overdose crisis.

“It is really a suite of tools that’s needed,” she said, pointing to a number of actions taken by the federal government to address substance use, including supporting supervised consumption sites and access to pharmaceutical-grade medications, also known as safer supply.

“Ensuring diversity of treatment is part of the strategy,” she said.

Government has heard the calls from across the country for decriminalization and it’s something officials are “deliberating,” she said, but added that she believe’s it’s not the only answer.

“It is really making sure that communities have the tools they need and they feel are appropriate to support people who use substances to have healthier lives.”

READ MORE: Federal prosecutors receive new guidelines against prosecuting minor drug offences

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Drugsopioid crisisopioids

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Interior Health update. File photo.
86 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

The new deaths are from Heritage Square, a long-term care facility in Vernon

The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy is the largest protected area in southeastern B.C. Photo: B.C. Parks
Province adds land to Valhalla and Purcell parks

Both additions enhance the parks’ ecological values, the province says

RCMP responded to a report early Friday morning of a suspect firing a gun at a Salmo home. Photo: Black Press
RCMP arrest woman who fired shots at Salmo home

The woman allegedly discharged a firearm early Friday morning

Nelson is holding a municipal by-election to replace former councillor Brittny Anderson, who resigned in December. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Nelson by-election nomination deadlines set

Candidacies must be registered between Feb. 9 and Feb. 19

Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the press theatre at the B.C. legislature for an update on COVID-19, Jan. 7, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 spread steady with 509 new cases Friday

Hospitalized and critical care cases decline, nine deaths

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza virually nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says Canada’s COVID vaccine plan on track despite Pfizer cutting back deliveries

Canadian officials say country will still likely receive four million doses by the end of March

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon shared a handwritten note his son received on Jan. 13, 2021. (Ravi Kahlon/Twitter)
Proud dad moment: B.C. minister’s son, 10, receives handwritten note for act of kindness

North Delta MLA took to Twitter to share a letter his son received from a new kid at school

Lilly and Poppy, two cats owned by Kalmar Cat Hotel ownder Donna Goodenough, both have cerebellAr hypoplasia, a genetic neurological condition that affects their ability to control their muscles and bones. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Wobbly Cats a riot of flailing legs and paws but bundles of love and joy to their owner

Woman urges others to not fear adopting cats with disabilities

A COVID-19 outbreak at Vernon's Heritage Square long-term care home has claimed seven people. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Two more COVID-19 deaths at Vernon care home

Heritage Square has now lost seven people due to the outbreak

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada’s top doctor says to avoid non-essential travel as B.C. explores legal options

Premier John Horgan says he is seeking legal advice on whether it can limit interprovincial travel

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the march on Washington, D.C., in August of 1963. Courtesy photo
Government reinforces importance of anti-racism act on Black Shirt Day

B.C. Ministers say education “a powerful tool” in the fight for equity and equality

Most Read