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Fact Checked: Four Claims on Drug Deaths

We found the true numbers behind what politicians have trumpeted. A Tyee election report.

Jen St. Denis 21 Jun 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

It was a heated day in Canada’s House of Commons when elected Speaker Greg Fergus ejected Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre from the chamber on April 30. Fergus removed Poilievre after he repeatedly refused to withdraw his remark that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pushing “wacko” drug policies.

That day Conservative MP Rachael Thomas posted on the social media site X in support of her boss.

“Drug use in parks, hospitals and public spaces is whacko. Drug deaths are up by 380 per cent in B.C. Pierre Poilievre called out Trudeau for his dangerous drug policies today in the House of Commons,” Thomas wrote. “How did partisan hack Greg Fergus respond?! He kicked Pierre Poilievre out of the chamber.”

THE CLAIM: Drug deaths are up by 380 per cent in B.C.

FACT CHECK: Thomas’s 380 per cent increase compares the number of B.C. drug deaths in 2015 with the 2023 total.

For the record, over a similar period, drug deaths are up by 198 per cent in Alberta.* And Thomas neglected to mention that overdose deaths have risen by 588 per cent in her home riding of Lethbridge, Alberta, over a similar period (2016 compared with 2023).

Since the United Conservative Party took power in 2019, the Alberta government has been following policies similar to Poilievre’s plans.

As Canada’s right-wing parties have taken aim at harm reduction policies like overdose prevention sites, safer supply and decriminalization, a lot of statistics have been thrown around on both sides of the debate.

In this Tyee fact check, we’re taking a closer look at how statistics are being used and misused as politicians argue about how to solve a deadly health crisis.

But first, some background

The overdose crisis in Canada is one of many issues that have been supercharged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the country, drug deaths shot up after the start of the pandemic in 2020 as community services shut down, people spent more time alone and supply chain disruptions made the illicit drug supply unpredictable and dangerous.

The pandemic bump marked the second alarming spike in overdose deaths in a five-year period.

In 2016, B.C. declared a public health emergency in response to rapidly rising deaths caused by the increased availability of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

At the time, the centre-right BC Liberal government led the way in legalizing overdose prevention sites — locations where people could use drugs in the presence of staff and volunteers trained to administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone.

When overdose deaths finally went down in 2019, health leaders attributed the drop to the increase in overdose prevention sites, which are also known as safe consumption sites.

But when deaths shot up again in 2020, a divide soon emerged among those who wanted to further increase harm reduction measures and those who wished to decrease access to harm reduction in favour of an emphasis on abstinence-based addiction treatment.

The BC NDP government expanded access to safer supply programs (prescribing opioids to drug users to reduce their reliance on the tainted illicit supply) and started a pilot program to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of meth, cocaine and heroin. The government has also made frequent announcements about adding drug treatment spaces.

In contrast to B.C.’s approach, Alberta’s United Conservative Party has limited the number of safe consumption sites, refused to implement safer supply programs and has focused on increasing access to addiction treatment.

In both provinces, overdose deaths have continued to rise.

Between 2022 and 2023, B.C. saw a seven per cent increase in deaths, bringing the total number to a historic high of 2,551.

In Alberta, overdose deaths increased by 16 per cent between 2022 and 2023, rising to 2,051, according to recently updated 2023 numbers.

A turquoise bar chart against a white background illustrates unregulated drug deaths in B.C. between 2015 and 2023.
A turquoise bar chart against a white background illustrates unregulated drug deaths in Alberta between 2017 and 2023.
Overdose deaths have followed similar trajectories in BC and Alberta. Charts by The Tyee.

Diving into the spin

B.C.’s decriminalization pilot project took effect Jan. 31, 2023, at the request of the provincial NDP government.

By that year drug use in public spaces — and in hospitals — had become a political hot point.

In April 2024, B.C. Premier David Eby asked Health Canada to make public drug use illegal in response to concerns about the effects of the decriminalization pilot.

The federal Conservatives seized on that moment, pointing to it as proof that harm reduction policies don’t work and are linked to drug deaths.

“Each day Trudeau refuses to ban public use of hard drugs in B.C., more than six Canadians die of overdoses in that province,” Poilievre posted on April 30, referring to B.C.’s average six deaths per day from overdoses.

“In May 2022, [Trudeau] granted the BC NDP government's request for a Criminal Code exemption to allow crack, meth, heroin and fentanyl use in parks, coffee shops, hospitals and beaches. Overdose deaths since have exploded to a record-smashing 2,500 lost lives,” Poilievre said in the House of Commons the same day. (The decriminalization pilot didn’t come into effect until Jan. 31, 2023.)

THE CLAIM: Liberal drug policies have killed 42,000 Canadians.

On May 17, Poilievre posted that “Trudeau’s wacko drug policies have killed 42,000 Canadians.”

Similar to the 380 per cent increase figure, that number includes the period from 2016 to 2023, before B.C.’s decriminalization pilot began.

FACT CHECK: Neither decriminalization nor safer supply, both drug policies made during the time the Liberals have been in power, have resulted in major changes in overdose deaths.

“It's a deliberate obfuscation of what the data is and what it actually tells us,” said Gillian Kolla, a health sciences professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies substance use.

After steep increases in 2020 and 2021, Kolla said, the overdose death rate in B.C. has been “relatively stable” from 2022 to 2024.

“There wasn't a major change in British Columbia in the level of drug deaths since decriminalization, and also that same period of safer supply. I think it's a real deliberate misrepresentation of the data for them to be claiming that.”

Both B.C. and Alberta have created easy-to-use dashboards that show a wide range of data.

BC Coroners Service data is accessible through an online dashboard, and so is Alberta’s substance use surveillance data.

A blue vertical bar chart describes unregulated B.C. drug deaths and death rate per 100,000 population.
A blue vertical bar chart describes unregulated B.C. drug deaths per day per month.
At top, overdose death totals and rates in BC per 100,000 people. At bottom, overdose death totals in BC by month. Charts via BC Coroners Service.

THE CLAIM: Alberta’s United Conservative Party’s rise to power directly correlates with the province’s rise in overdose deaths.

FACT CHECK: Every province in Canada saw a rise in overdose deaths in 2020. That rise is related to the social isolation and distancing measures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the Conservatives have avoided talking about Alberta’s overdose fatalities, their opponents have had no such reluctance.

After the City of Lethbridge closed one longtime overdose prevention site, replacing it with a smaller site in a different location that did not offer services for drug inhalation, deaths rose to the highest level ever seen in the small city.

In 2023, Lethbridge had the highest per capita level in the province, at 111 deaths per 100,000 people.

“Lethbridge closed a safe injection site — their death rate is triple that of British Columbia; it has skyrocketed. It is one of the worst cities in the country because of policies the UCP has implemented,” NDP MP Gord Johns told The Tyee.

Johns, who represents the Courtenay-Alberni riding on Vancouver Island, has repeatedly tied the spike in overdose deaths in Alberta to the election of the UCP in 2019.

But the increase he’s pointing to is the same trend that took place in every province in Canada in 2020.

Vertical bar charts in robin’s egg blue illustrate Alberta’s overdose death rates.
At top, overdose death rates per 100,000 people each year from 2016 to the first two months of 2024 in Alberta. At bottom, the total overdose deaths in Alberta by year. Charts via Government of Alberta.

THE CLAIM: It’s easy to see how policy impacts the number of overdose deaths.

FACT CHECK: We can’t yet meaningfully measure the impacts of the presence or absence of a policy when its interventions aren’t yet reflective of the size of the population that needs it.

Substance use researcher and health sciences professor Kolla said it’s difficult to determine how much any one policy is affecting overdose death numbers.

“We still have this kind of, like, magic bullet mentality where one intervention is going to have a massive impact,” she said.

But the situation is complex, and it’s impossible to meaningfully measure the impact of the presence or absence of a single policy without data on interventions scaled to the size of the population that needs them — work that’s yet to be seen.

“The fact is, we haven't scaled up any of the interventions to the level of population needs,” she notes, “and that goes for all of the different evidence-based treatments and harm reduction options.

“I think we need to be measured in our expectations. If you're going to have a population-level impact, you actually need to have population-level reach. And we haven't seen that, even in places like British Columbia, which has scaled up a wide variety of measures the fastest.”

A horizontal bar chart in robin’s egg blue shows unregulated drug death rates in Lethbridge.
A horizontal bar chart in robin’s egg blue shows unregulated drug death rates in Red Deer.
A horizontal bar chart in robin’s egg blue shows unregulated drug death rates in Fort McMurray.
Drug death statistics from three Alberta cities. In 2020, Lethbridge closed a safe consumption site, replacing it with a smaller site in a different location that did not include inhalation services. Red Deer has had an overdose prevention site since 2018, while Fort McMurray does not. Researcher Gillian Kolla says it’s difficult to track what impact adding or taking away certain programs or interventions is having on overdose death rates. Charts by The Tyee.

As politicians continue to volley statistics to bolster or attack various policies, Kolla wants them to remember that the data in their heated debates represents more than just numbers.

“We’re forgetting that those are real people,” she said.

“We’re throwing around these numbers and forgetting that those are people’s loved ones.”

* Story updated on June 21 at 9:10 a.m. to correct the rate at which drugs deaths increased from 2016 to 2023 in Alberta overall versus Lethbridge.  [Tyee]

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