Most of Canada’s major federal parties have voiced their support during the election campaign to remove criminal penalties for simple drug possession and offer safer alternatives to street drugs, as overdose deaths reach record levels across the country.
While neither party has focused on addiction, the NDP and the Greens have included decriminalization and secure provisioning on their platforms. Liberals have not, and leader Justin Trudeau said only that his government would work with community partners interested in those actions.
Conservatives, for their part, have taken a recovery-focused approach that some experts say would not alleviate the escalation of the crisis.
The Conservatives, if elected Sept. 20, have promised to invest $ 325 million over three years to create 1,000 residential drug treatment beds and build 50 recovery communities across Canada. Leader Erin O’Toole has said her administration would allow monitored consumer sites as it moves away from harm reduction and toward recovery.
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Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Alberta, fears that a conservative government will restrict access to harm reduction supports while recovery takes center stage.
“I would issue a really significant warning against adopting the (conservative) platform as a national policy. We have basically seen a replication of that policy already in place in Alberta and we have never had more people dying here, ”says Hyshka.
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More than 2,500 Albertans have died from accidental drug overdoses since the province’s United Conservative Party took office in April 2019 and implemented an approach based on recovery from the opioid crisis.
Under Prime Minister Jason Kenney, Alberta has limited access to a life-saving opioid dependency program and supervised drug use sites. Kenney has often touted investments in addiction treatment and recovery centers.
“Giving a needle to someone who is deeply addicted is not ongoing care. I don’t even think it’s terribly compassionate to facilitate addiction rather than offer a full spectrum of lifelong treatment and recovery services, ”Kenney said in July 2020.
However, Hyshka said the reality is that most people who use substances on any given day are unprepared, unwilling, or unable to access treatment services for various reasons.
A spokesman for federal conservatives said in a statement that the opioid crisis is a national emergency that has robbed too many Canadians and devastated too many families.
“That is why conservatives in Canada will treat the opioid epidemic as the urgent health problem that it is,” said Mathew Clancy.
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“Only a conservative government will ensure that recovery is the primary goal of the federal substance abuse framework and will provide those struggling with addiction the help they need.”
The party also plans to expand the distribution of naloxone, a drug used to temporarily reverse overdoses, and improve culturally appropriate treatment services for indigenous communities.
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Dr. Mark Tyndall, a professor at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, says the plan “may resonate with the general public,” but it is an “impractical and unproven” response.
Tyndall says that all parties must address the core problem of highly toxic illicit drugs with safe supply programs that provide legal and regulated drugs as alternatives to illicit substances.
“The three pillars I think about are: safe supply as a direct response to the supply of poisoned drugs, decriminalization to destigmatize drug use, and then where do we put our priorities with surveillance,” says Tyndall.
Decriminalization means that criminal penalties for personal drug use and possession will be lifted.
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O’Toole, during a campaign stop in British Columbia last month, failed to commit to decriminalization.
“People with addiction should not be the center of attention of the criminal justice system. People who treat and take advantage of people with addictions should be the center of attention, ”said O’Toole.
“We would like to see more judicial discretion to obtain more treatment options for people with addictions.”
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The New Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Québec Bloc, all of which held seats before dissolution, told The Canadian Press that they support decriminalization. Both the Greens and the New Democrats also committed to a secure supply.
Although the Liberal platform does not mention either approach, Trudeau has said that his government will continue to work with community partners to seek those solutions.
“Safe supply) is definitely something we’ve invested in and will continue to advocate for,” Trudeau said during an announcement about the mental health commitments.
“Have we seen several provinces? particularly British Columbia, very interested in advancing some forms of decriminalization and we are absolutely open to working with them ”.
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Liberals would also amend the Penal Code to repeal mandatory minimum drug-related penalties. And they promise to spend $ 25 million on a public education campaign to reduce stigma and $ 500 million for evidence-based treatment.
Hyshka says the NDP and the Greens are more aligned with the evidence on the issue.
Both sides said they would declare a public health emergency to address the overdose crisis. The NDP also said it would launch an investigation into the role pharmaceutical companies played in fueling the epidemic.
“They are recognizing that innovation is really critical if we are to end this unprecedented crisis that we find ourselves in,” says Hyshka. “Simply maintaining the status quo will not be effective in reducing deaths.”
Data from Health Canada says that more than 21,000 Canadians have died from opioid-related overdoses since 2016. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths have reached record levels, with around 17 people dying per day last year.
All parties have pledged support for measures ranging from harm reduction, including monitored consumption sites, to recovery.
© 2021 The Canadian Press