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

Pioneer Arena is closing for the season. Photo: John Boivin
Castlegar’s Pioneer Arena and Nelson Civic Centre closing for season

RDCK is closing the ice at two of its arenas due to financial concerns related to COVID-19

A juvenile sturgeon in a B.C. rearing facility. The wild population in the Upper Columbia is estimated at 1,100 individuals, enhanced with roughly 5,500 hatchery fish. (file photo)
B.C.’s Upper Columbia sturgeon endure long battle with local extinction

Decades of monitoring and intervention is ongoing to save the prehistoric fish

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

A performance by Alex Cuba will be streaming live on Arts Revelstoke platforms on Feb. 12, 2021. (Photo by Jeff Fasano, submitted by Arts Revelstoke)
Arts Revelstoke hosting virtual performances and movies this season

REVY. Live and Movies in the Mountains is returning

Summit Ski Hill had a delayed start to the season because of warm temperatures. Photo: Summit Ski Hill
Late season start frustrating for Nakusp ski hill

Summit Ski Hill only just opened Jan. 14

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

Williams Lake physician Dr. Ivan Scrooby and medical graduate student Vionarica Gusti hold up the COSMIC Bubble Helmet. Both are part of the non-profit organization COSMIC Medical which has come together to develop devices for treating patients with COVID-19. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Group of B.C. doctors, engineers developing ‘bubble helmet’ for COVID-19 patients

The helmet could support several patients at once, says the group

A 17-year-old snowmobiler used his backcountry survival sense in preparation to spend the night on the mountain near 100 Mile House Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021 after getting lost. (South Cariboo Search and Rescue Facebook photo)
Teen praised for backcountry survival skills after getting lost in B.C.’s Cariboo mountains

“This young man did everything right after things went wrong.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole says

O’Toole condemned the Capitol attack as ‘horrifying’ and sought to distance himself and the Tories from Trumpism

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

Many jurisdictions are tightening restrictions to curb soaring COVID-19 case counts

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)

Most Read