Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government would not consider legalizing harder drugs, like heroin, to combat the overdose epidemic that has killed thousands of Canadians.
“There’s a lot of things we’ve done. But we are not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we are doing with marijuana,” Trudeau told Global BC’s The Morning Show on Tuesday. “We are going to focus on getting the control and regulation of marijuana regime right. And that is quite a handful right now and we are not looking at any other steps.”
Trudeau defended his government’s efforts in the battle against the growing opioid crisis, including making it easier to open safe injection sites, expanded access to naloxone, and allowing the importation of prescription heroin to treat severe addiction. The RCMP and China’s Ministry of Public Security have also agreed to share intelligence aimed at curbing the flow of fentanyl and other illicit synthetic opioids into Canada.
“I’ve been working with and meeting with frontline responders and community workers in [Vancouver’s] Downtown Eastside and indeed across the country,” Trudeau said.
“We are going to continue to work very hard to put an end to this terrible crisis.”
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But one expert who has studied and witnessed the deadly scourge of illicit fentanyl called Trudeau’s comments “short-sighted” and said that without considering all policy tools in the fight against opioids more people will continue to die in communities across the country.
“It’s a crisis that is largely related to a toxic illegal drug supply. So taking options off the table to remove the poisons that are killing thousands and thousands of Canadians every year is frankly irresponsible,” said Dan Werb, director of the Toronto-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.
“We are beyond the point of crisis.”
Werb says that while there is no single solution to the epidemic, a regulated system would help improve access to lower dose opioids, make drugs more stable and prevent deaths, while also disrupting and disincentivizing the illegal and often deadly market for drugs like fentanyl.
“We basically have a regulated system for heroin,” he said. “On a very, very strict basis, people are allowed access to pharmaceutical grade heroin to manage their substance use disorder or opioid use disorder.”
“Why won’t they talk about expanding that set of policies?” he said. “Just to refuse to think about it smacks of politics.”
Canada’s Public Health Agency estimated that more than 2,450 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016, with many deaths associated with fentanyl. Statistics from provincial health agencies show the deadly trend has accelerated this year with fentanyl contributing to the deaths of four people on average every day in B.C. and Alberta.
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Fentanyl was linked to 368 overdose deaths in B.C. between January and April 2017, according to a report from the BC Coroners Service — an increase of 115 per cent over the same period in 2016. The province is also on track for more than 1,500 deaths in a single year.
In Alberta, fentanyl was suspected in 176 overdose deaths between Jan. 1 and May 13, 2017. Carfentanil, a more powerful relative of fentanyl, was detected in 34 of those deaths, according to data from Alberta Health.
In Toronto, four suspected drug-related deaths in a three-day period near the end of July prompted police to issue a public safety alert as investigators worried about the possibility of fentanyl-laced heroin. Ontario has not published full 2016 totals or anything from 2017, but 2015 numbers show fentanyl was implicated in 220 deaths in the province.
“This government has made a lot of moves to embrace harm reduction in spirit,” Werb said. “But when it comes to trying to deal with the problem rather than [creating] Band-Aid solutions, they still have their heads stuck in the sand.”
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Sarah Blyth, founder of the Overdose Prevention Society, has been on the frontlines of the overdose epidemic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She is calling for “bold leadership” from government officials to find new ways to address the crisis.
“More people are going to die and it’s really unfortunate,” Blyth told Global News. “To maintain this crisis as it is, is very exhausting for all of our frontline workers.”
Blyth said opiate and heroin replacement therapy programs are “really effective” when monitored by health professionals.
“Programs should be expanded to give heroin or synthetic heroin to people addicted to hard drugs in an effort to [prevent] them from taking drugs off the street,” she said.
Health officials in British Columbia and other advocacy groups have made calls in the past for drastic changes in drug policy and promoted the idea of decriminalization – spurred by the opioid crisis.
“If we allowed adults to access a range of different drugs under a public paradigm we could stop the overdose deaths today,” Mark Haden, a public health researcher at the University of British Columbia, told Global News in 2016 after the province declared a public health emergency over surging overdose deaths.
The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) has also made similar calls for the legalization of all drugs.
Werb said a large part of the current drug crisis was the government failing to anticipate the response to pulling OxyContin from the marketplace.
“Look what has taken its place? An incredibly potent, highly efficient marketplace that is killing people,” he said.
— With a file from Leslie Young
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