The three main federal political parties all agree that Canada is facing a severe opioid crisis. Powerful and easily available drugs like fentanyl killed 8,000 Canadians during the past two and a half years. That’s between eight and nine deaths per day.
Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats all say this crisis is so severe they want to take a non-partisan approach to fighting it. But when they each elaborate their own approaches to the crisis, as they did during a House of Commons debate on Monday, December 10, big differences emerge.
All party representatives who spoke felt the pain of those thousands of unnecessary deaths, some acutely and personally. But only the NDP offered a coherent series of specific measures to tackle the crisis. That approach would include completely decriminalizing addiction and suing drug manufacturers.
Liberal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor agonized that the carnage wrought by opioids keeps her up nights.
“The sad reality is that few Canadians are left untouched by this crisis, from coast to coast to coast,” she said.
She pointed to its multiple causes: “We know that the over-prescribing of opioids has played a critical role and that toxic, illicit fentanyl continues to permeate our borders.”
Safe injection sites
When it came to solutions, Petitpas-Taylor emphasized that victims must not be blamed.
“The preconceived idea that problematic substance use should be seen as a personal failure is hindering our efforts to help those who need it,” the minister explained.
The government, Petipas-Taylor said, favours a harm-reduction approach. And she spoke at length about one particular harm-reduction tactic, the use of safe injection sites.
The health minister touted the success of the 28 sites that now operate throughout Canada. They received more than 125,000 visits over the past 18 months, and “have reversed over 1,100 overdoses, without a single fatality at any of these sites.”
Notwithstanding the federal government’s own efforts to combat the opioid crisis, the minister also wanted to make it clear that fighting the scourge of opioid drugs is not a burden the federal government should have to bear alone.
In our system, Petitpas-Taylor emphasized, much of the authority and responsibility for dealing with opioids lies with provincial governments. The health minister’s House of Commons colleagues did not need to be reminded that some of those provincial governments, notably that of Doug Ford in Ontario, are, at best, skeptical about safe injection sites.
‘Illegal drug injection sites’
The federal Conservatives tried to straddle both sides of the fence on the issue – upbraiding the government for not doing enough, while intimating they have doubts about measures like safe injection sites.
Alexander Nuttall, the Conservative MP from Barrie, Ont., characterized safe injection facilities as “illegal drug injection sites.” While such sites were going up all over the country, he said, there was “a severe increase in the number of deaths, including a 40-per-cent increase between 2016 and 2017.”
Nuttall did not say whether or not he believed there is a cause-and-effect connection between safe sites and opioid deaths. And otherwise he only differed with the Liberals in urging them to spend more and do more.
“I am a fiscal Conservative. I fight for low taxes.” Nuttall proclaimed. “I have not met a Canadian who has said that providing more rehabilitation, more recovery services, more support and more help for individuals who are fighting these addictions is a bad thing.”
The MP from Barrie member did not, however, say exactly what new measures his party would support.
The New Democrats’ health critic, Vancouver MP Don Davies, was the only speaker to recommend a robust and detailed set of policies.
Davies urged the federal government to declare the opioid crisis constitutes “a national public health emergency.”
He and his party want the government to legalize and fund overdose prevention sites, so they can receive the full measure of resources they need.
Davies and the NDP also advocate for completely decriminalizing addiction. On that score, they recommend that the government consider the example of Portugal.
“In 1999,” Davies told the Commons, “there was a drug crisis in Portugal, related to a cheap toxic heroin supply. Faced with rising harms, the government of Portugal decided to treat substance use as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The crisis in Portugal soon stabilized and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, overdose deaths and drug-related crime.”
The health orientation of Portugal’s policy is reflected in its spending choices. Ninety per cent of public money spent fighting drugs in Portugal is focused on health care and just 10 per cent on enforcement. In Canada, despite the Trudeau government’s claim that it is committed to non-punitive harm reduction, the figures are almost reversed: 70 per cent of anti-drug spending is on enforcement.
Finally, while other parties chose to tread gingerly around the issue of corporate responsibility for opioid deaths, Davies did not mince his words.
He pointed to the successful U.S. federal prosecution of at least one drug company and the British Columbia government’s current civil action against manufacturers and distributors of opioid drugs.
“That lawsuit is open to every province and territory and the federal government to join,” Davies pointed out. “If corporate executives minimized or concealed the addictive qualities of prescription opioids in the U.S., it is very possible that they did so in Canada as well.”
The NDP urges the federal government to support B.C.'s lawsuit. In addition, Davies says, the federal government should launch its own investigation to determine if there are grounds for pursuing criminal action under federal law against any drug companies.
Photo: The Javorac/Flickr
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.
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