A year ago, the federal government was told that if it wanted to stem the tide of overdose deaths from a toxic drug supply, it needed to regulate that supply.
“Drug regulation will have the greatest impact in ending the drug toxicity death crisis,” the expert task force on substance use told the government in its final report.
A year later, as deaths continue to rise, that important recommendation has not been implemented, along with other key recommendations from the two task force reports, including the immediate expansion of a safer drug supply and the decriminalization of drug possession across the country.
“The main point of the second report is that if you want to stop killing people, you need to go in and regulate it,” said Dr. Kwame McKenzie, co-chair of the task force and executive director of the Wellesley Institute.
“We were also saying that we believe that business as usual is part of the crisis, and that our war on drugs actually ended up being a war on people who use drugs,” McKenzie said.
“If deaths are rising, then we haven’t done enough. It’s as simple as that. We haven’t done enough and we have to do more.”
Canada is in the midst of an overdose crisis, fueled by a drug supply tainted with powerful opioids. Commissioned by the government, the task force said last year that “it’s time for a paradigm shift in policy,” noting that Canada has the “fastest growing overdose death rate in the world.”
More than 7,500 people died last year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which estimates deaths may remain high or rise this year.
There has been some movement on the part of the government in the year since the task force delivered its final reports. A waiver has been granted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in British Columbia for three years starting next year, and Ottawa has also invested millions of dollars in pilot projects for safer supply and other services that advocates say they are not enough.
But a characteristic recommendation of the task force has not been implemented: “immediately develop and implement a single public health framework” for all psychoactive substances, including drugs that are currently illegal, along with tobacco, alcohol and cannabis. .
“This framework should aim to minimize the scale of the illegal market, provide stability and predictability to regulated substance markets, and provide access to safer substances for those at risk of injury or death from toxic illegal substances,” the task force wrote in your report.
“There is a clear urgency to this work.”
McKenzie noted that alcohol became more potent and dangerous during the Prohibition era, when it was made in small batches to make it easier and cheaper to transport, and said the same thing had happened with illicit drugs.
“We have smaller, more powerful drugs, and the next person is trying to make a smaller drug that is more powerful than the last one,” he said.
“That’s how we end up with these cheap, very powerful drugs that kill people.”
Ideally, a person should be able to walk into a controlled environment like a pharmacy and buy a drug that is currently illegal, said Donald MacPherson, a member of the task force and executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.
“We have two of the world’s most dangerous drugs readily available to people, alcohol and tobacco, and we trust people to manage their use,” he said.
He said a “very small proportion” of Canadians use illicit drugs, while harm from the toxic supply is disproportionate for that number of people.
“It’s time to create a level playing field and that’s what that recommendation is trying to get at,” he said. “Our regulations on psychoactive substances are out of control. You can buy alcohol in the supermarket, but you can be arrested if you have a gram of cocaine with you.”
MacPherson said he doesn’t know if the recommendation has been worked on. “Not implementing these recommendations is to continue doing more of the same, and more of the same is going to give us the same results: tens of thousands of people are going to die because of a toxic drug market,” he said.
MacPherson met Mental Health and Addiction Minister Carolyn Bennett and said: “I know that Minister Bennett is using (the report). In her meetings with us, she knows about it, she has it, she has written notes about it.”
He said he also knows that work is underway to establish national standards for treatment services and resources, another recommendation from the task force.
McKenzie said it’s not even clear whether the government has accepted the recommendation on regulation. He said the task force gave the government an evidence-based “model,” and said it was up to the Liberals, as well as the provincial governments, to show their work.
“If people are not going to get the plan out of the expert task force, then we need to see from the feds and the provinces an alternative plan because people are dying,” McKenzie said.
He credited the government for the progress made to date, saying he would like to see more funding and resources for services for racialized groups and the LGBTQ+ community.
Bennett’s office referred Star’s questions to Health Canada, which did not answer whether the government supports all of the recommendations.
“Health Canada is reviewing the task force’s recommendations to inform the way forward,” the agency said in a statement, while saying “work is still ongoing” regarding implementation.
“You have to be brave,” Natasha Touesnard, executive director of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, said of the government’s lack of action on the task force’s recommendations.
She stepped down as co-chair of the task force near the end of her tenure due to a lack of other active drug users on the panel. Touesnard said the task force delivered an “incredible report” that she wishes the government had acted on immediately given the rising number of overdose deaths.
“Every time I think it’s going to happen, it’s not, and it hurts me to think that they don’t hold us in high esteem and, second, that they’re okay with us dying,” he said.
“Maybe in 10 years someone could pick up (the report) and dust it off and think, ‘Why the hell didn’t we do this?'”
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