Trudeau gets it wrong on Canada’s other health crisis

Posted on September 7, 2020 in Health Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got it wrong this past week when he was asked about Canada’s other national health crisis.

That would be the alarming increase in deaths from drug overdoses. In some parts of the country, notably British Columbia, more people have been dying from overdosing on toxic drugs, mainly opioids, than are being killed by the COVID-19 pandemic that dominates the news.

In fact the two crises are linked, as public health authorities have stressed since the coronavirus struck Canada in March.

The opioid crisis was actually easing until early this year in the hardest-hit provinces, B.C. and Alberta. But the COVID-19 lockdown disrupted everything, including established drug supply routes. Street drugs are now more likely to be cut with even more toxic substances, making them potentially even more lethal than before.

And the social isolation imposed by the pandemic can be the worst thing for people addicted to drugs. They may be more inclined to use, and access to safe-consumption sites is often more difficult.

The result has been a spike in deaths. More than 900 people have died this year in B.C., a record, and earlier this summer Ontario’s chief coroner reported a 35-per-cent increased in fatal overdoses compared to the same period last year. Experts say the trend is the same in most other provinces.

No wonder more and more people are calling for a drastic change in approach: decriminalizing the use and possession of opioids and similar drugs. Public health authorities support the idea, as does B.C. Premier John Horgan and even the association representing Canada’s chiefs of police. This idea has gone from radical to mainstream in the face of a crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 15,000 Canadians in the past four years.

All this was put to the prime minister by a CBC Radio interviewer while he visited B.C. this past week. Trudeau said his government is not considering decriminalization, and added: “We’re always going to base our approach on science and evidence and understand that the opioid crisis is much more of a health issue than a justice issue, and that’s the lens we’ve taken on it.”

In fact, if the federal government really was basing its approach on “science and evidence” it would remove simple drug possession from the Criminal Code. In addition to Canadian health authorities and police chiefs, that’s the route recommended by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the Global Commission on Drug Policy and countless medical experts.

The prime minister has a good point when he stresses the need to ensure a safer drug supply, and the government has taken steps in this direction by, for example, green-lighting safe-consumption sites in some cities.

But the health aspects of the crisis fall mostly under provincial jurisdiction. Some provinces, such as British Columbia, are leaders in this area. But others, including Alberta and Ontario, have much more mixed records. It depends a lot on policies adopted by each provincial government and often on the political complexion of that government.

In Toronto, for example, Ottawa is funding a pilot project to offer a safe supply of opioids, an approach aligned with the harm-reduction policies pursued by the city. But the Ford government isn’t part of that, and has capped the number of safe-consumptions sites in the province. The push-pull between levels of government doesn’t allow for a united approach to the nation-wide crisis of overdose deaths.

All of which makes it even more disappointing that the federal government won’t take action in the area where it has exclusive authority — criminal law. Only Ottawa could take the big step of decriminalization and make addiction a health issue, not one for the justice system.

We understand why: it’s a political calculation on the part of the Liberals, who no doubt fear there are more votes to be lost than gained by taking that route. Plus, of course, the government has its hands very full battling COVID-19.

But if Trudeau truly wanted to follow the science, he would take a different approach to Canada’s other pandemic.

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