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

Supporters gather during a rally against measures taken by government and health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the Whistle Stop cafe in Mirror Alta, on Saturday May 8, 2021. The Whistle Stop was shut down by AHS for not complying with COVID-19 rules. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Police hand out tickets to dozens leaving anti-lockdown protest in Alberta

Hundreds gathered outside the Whistle Stop Café in the hamlet of Mirror, Alta.

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Alberta leads the Prairie provinces in being the first to take COVID-19 vaccine bookings for pre-teens. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta leads Prairie provinces in accepting COVID vaccine bookings for pre-teens

The province begins accepting appointments for kids as young as 12 starting today

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
A judge has found an Edmonton woman guilty of manslaughter in the death of her five-year-old daughter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of 5-year-old girl

The woman was charged and pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and assault with weapons, including a belt and a spatula

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Alberta identifies 2,042 new COVID-19 cases Saturday

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
10 years later: Former Slave Lake mayor remembers wildfire that burned through town

Alberta announced in 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman travelling from Alberta found dead in B.C. park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel’s approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

Wolf density in Jasper is low enough that the animals would not be expected to be a major threat

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman’s restaurant is located in the tiny community of Field, which relies on tourism

A rodeo south of Bowden drew a huge crowd on May 1 and 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy Mom’s Diner’s Facebook page)

Most Read