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

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
253 new COVID-19 cases, 4 more deaths in Interior Health over the weekend

More than 1,000 cases in the region remain active

Earth worms are decomposers. (Photo via Pixabay)
Stoke on Science-The A-Z: D is for decomposers

Jade Harvey-Berrill Stoke on Science Below our feet, currently buried beneath the… Continue reading

Alistair Taylor has lived in Revelstoke since 2003. He is running to be a city councillor in the upcoming byelection. (Jocelyn Doll/Revelstoke Review)
Alistair Taylor running for vacant council seat

Byelection coming up in Revelstoke in February

Matt Cherry is running to be a Revelstoke City Councillor in the upcoming byelection. (Submited/Matt Stepchuck)
Matt Cherry running in Revelstoke’s byelection

Advance polls are coming up Feb. 3 and 10, with election day on Feb. 13

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

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C. adjusts COVID-19 vaccine rollout for delivery slowdown

Daily cases decline over weekend, 31 more deaths

Interior Health confirms vaccination of priority populations has begun in Salmon Arm. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19 vaccinations underway in Salmon Arm

Interior Health confirms vaccination of priority populations has begun

This is the location, 3240 Skaha Lake Road, of where BC Housing plans to build a four storey supportive housing project for the homeless and at risk of being homeless. (Jesse Day Western News)
Penticton mayor and MLA concerned about new BC Housing project

‘Penticton already has its fair share’ of BC Housing projects

Interior Health declared the COVID-19 outbreak at McKinney Place long term care home over Monday, Jan. 18, 2020. (File photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at McKinney Place care home declared over

‘This has been one of our most challenging outbreaks so far,’ says chief medical health officer

Penticton Bylaw officer Glenn Smith, as well as resident Zak Laycock (not pictured), received the Governor General Award from the Royal Canadian Humane Association to recognize their heroism in a summer 2019 incident. (Contributed)
Bylaw officer and Penticton resident given awards for intervening in sexual assault

Bylaw officer Glenn Smith said he was simply in the right place at the right time

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Sunnybank
COVID-19 related deaths at Oliver, West Kelowna and Vernon senior care homes

Sunnybank, Heritage Retirement Residence and Noric House recorded deaths over the weekend

Hillview Elementary students Emma Li and Mina Nadeau were awarded by the Premier’s office for winning the annual holiday card contest. (Karen Rogers photo)
North Okanagan students’ art featured on Premier’s cards

Hillview youth chosen for annual holiday card contest

A female prisoner sent Langford police officers a thank-you card after she spent days in their custody. (Twitter/West Shore RCMP)
Woman gives Victoria-area jail 4.5-star review in handwritten card to police after arrest

‘We don’t often get thank you cards from people who stay with us, but this was sure nice to see’: RCMP

Most Read