The opioid crisis is the largest public health emergency of our lifetime.
Across Canada, there were 4,588 opioid-related deaths last year alone, up from 4,120 in 2017. That’s an average of one death every two hours. The toll is 2.6 times greater than the number of people who died at the height of the AIDs pandemic in 1995.
In 2017, one of those fatalities was my son Simon. He was only 24. The loss of my son broke my heart, but what has made matters worse since his passing is that so very little is being done to stop these largely preventable deaths.
Like me, many people across our country have been touched by the opioid crisis and frustrated by government inaction.
We are wondering what the federal parties are promising in the current election.
For example, do they support legally regulating drugs to ensure a safer supply? And do they believe that drug use should be decriminalized and treated like a public health challenge, a move that has dramatically reduced overdose fatalities and helped with harm reduction in Portugal?
I wanted to know. I first sent emails and letters on Aug. 6, long before the election campaign officially began. I asked the health minister and critics for each of the parties — or their leaders — for their party positions on decriminalization of drug use and legal regulation of drugs. I followed up in August and September and researched the parties’ public statements to add to the limited information in the responses.
What follows is a summary of party positions. The information was drawn from election platforms, media reports and correspondence with party representatives.
Once I’ve set them out, I offer my assessment of their positions on key actions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said, “We’re not looking at full decriminalization at all right now.”
The Liberal election platform includes a section called Drug Use and Addiction, which states that the party intends to take the following measures if re-elected.
“To help more people access the addiction treatment services they need, we will move forward with new investments that help provinces and territories expand community-based services, build more in-patient rehab beds, and scale up the most effective programs — such as extending hours for Insite and other safe consumption sites.”
“We will also make drug treatment court the default option for first-time non-violent offenders charged exclusively with simple possession, to help drug users get quick access to treatment, and to prevent more serious crimes.” (Drug treatment court isn’t a form of decriminalization; in fact, it’s considered an expansion of criminalization.)
The Bloc Québécois election platform does not mention the opioid crisis, although opioid-related overdoses killed 424 people in the province last year. A party spokesperson told La Presse it is opposed to decriminalization of “all illicit drugs.”
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is clear. “I believe that the decriminalization of drugs is a terrible idea, and one that we will not ever consider.”
Scheer also says adding more safe consumption sites is a “terrible” idea.
The Conservatives released their “plan for a safer Canada” Friday. It includes a promise to “revise the Canadian drug and substance strategy to focus on helping Canadians recover from addiction.”
In a media conference launching this plan, Scheer said:
“We will invest more in building or upgrading recovery community centres, recovery high schools and treatment centres.”
“We will recommit to a national education program that will inform our children, youth and teens about the dangers of drug use.”
“To protect innocent children and families, we will help municipalities clean up and dispose of used needles on public property.”
The Green party would decriminalize drug possession to deal with the opioid crisis.
Its election platform states that “drug possession should be decriminalized, ensuring people have access to a screened supply and the medical support they need to combat their addictions.”
The Green party platform also promises to:
“Address the opioid crisis as a health care issue, not a criminal issue, by declaring a national health emergency.”
“Recognize that fentanyl contamination is why deaths are more accurately described as poisonings than overdoses.”
“Increase funding to community-based organizations to test drugs and make Naloxone kits widely available to treat overdoses.”
In addition, a Green party media release states the party would “increase supports for mental health and addiction.”
New Democratic Party
It says the NDP would “declare a public health emergency and commit to working with all levels of government, experts and Canadians to end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction so that people struggling with addiction can get the help they need without fear of arrest, while getting tough on the real criminals — those who traffic in and profit from illegal drugs.”
The NDP platform also promises to:
“Work with the provinces to support overdose prevention sites.”
“Expand access to treatment on demand for people struggling with addiction.”
“Launch an investigation into the role drug companies may have played in fueling the opioid crisis and seek meaningful financial compensation from them for the public costs of this crisis.”
People’s Party of Canada
The People’s Party of Canada is releasing its platform in stages and has not mentioned the opioid crisis yet. However, according to La Presse, the party’s press secretary has confirmed its opposition to decriminalization of illicit drugs.
So which party has the strongest positions?
On decriminalizing drugs
Our country’s system of criminalizing drug users has not worked. An increasing number of Canadians, including the editorial board of the Globe and Mail, believe it’s time to consider decriminalization of drugs.
To date, the Green Party has the strongest and clearest position with its commitment to decriminalize drug possession. (Although the CBC has reported that leader Elizabeth May has said the Greens would consider rolling back decriminalization in the future if the opioid crisis subsides.)
The NDP election platform includes a promise to work towards an end to criminalization and the stigma of drug addiction. But when? How committed is the party? Why not a real commitment to decriminalizing drugs, as government or partner in a minority government?
When Jagmeet Singh was running for NDP leader in 2017, he was clearer. “I would call for the decriminalization of all personal-possession offences when it comes to drugs, period,” he said.
Ensuring safe supplies
None of the party platforms call for the creation of a legal and regulated supply of drugs to ensure that drug users have access to a “safe supply” of opioids or other currently illicit drugs.
The Liberal government did make small moves towards safe supply by allowing doctors to apply for the ability to prescribe medical grade heroin to treat patients with “chronic relapsing opioid dependence.” Activists and drug policy experts have noted that access to this safe supply has been unacceptably low.
Singh has been asked if he is in favour of providing a safe supply of drugs. He has not said “yes,” but has stated, “I am open to making a decision that’s based on saving lives and I’m open to looking at anything, any policy, any decision that can save Canadians and save their lives.”
Green party leader Elizabeth May recently indicated she is in favour of safe supply. “If we don’t control it, we lose people,” she has said. However, safe supply wasn’t mentioned in the party platform.
Not happy with party positions?
If no party has taken a clear enough position on these issues, you have another option.
You can contact your local candidates — their phone numbers and email addresses are normally available online — and let them know what you want to see.
And you can choose to vote for the candidate with the clearest response and strongest commitments on the policy approaches that will save lives.