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Ottawa rejects expert calls to decriminalize illegal opioids

A injection kit is seen inside the newly-opened Fraser Health supervised consumption site in Surrey, B.C. Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ottawa says it has no plans to consider decriminalizing hard drugs, such as heroin, despite calls from local politicians, health officials and experts who argue such radical action is needed to combat the overdose epidemic that first hit British Columbia and is now a national crisis.

Vancouver's mayor became the latest person to advocate for this shift in drug policy after new statistics showed his city had already surpassed last year's overdose death toll of 231 people.

But a spokesperson for federal Health Minister Jane Philpott says Canada is focused on legalizing cannabis not decriminalizing other, more deadly illicit drugs.

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"Our government is currently working on the legalization, strict regulation, and restriction of access to cannabis, in order to keep it out of the hands of youth, and profits out of the hands of criminals," spokesperson Andrew MacKendrick said in an e-mailed statement late last week. "We are not looking to decriminalize or legalize other illicit substances at this time."

Ms. Philpott, who was unavailable for an interview last week, told the annual general meeting of the Canadian Medical Association on Monday that the federal response to the "unprecedented national public-health emergency" of increasing opioid deaths includes a commitment to harm reduction, facilitating access to supervised consumption sites and making naloxone available without prescription.

Late last month, Ms. Philpott and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould travelled to Portugal, along with Canada's chief public health officer, to learn more about how that country drastically improved its addiction and overdose rates after it decriminalized personal possession of all drugs in 2001.

Ottawa could make a similar shift, but should first strike a new federal commission to study regulating all illicit drugs, according to a key recommendation from the final report of Canada's Drug Futures Forum, a two-day meeting in April of more than 200 scientific experts, front-line workers, politicians and people who use drugs.

That report, written to create a long-term vision for drug policy in Canada, states that the federal government should establish an independent body to: "conduct a cost-benefit analysis of current drug-control policies; explore potential steps toward decriminalization, legalization and regulation of each class of currently illegal drugs; and consider formal acknowledgment and redress for harms of drug-prohibition policies."

Dan Werb, co-organizer of the forum and director of the Toronto-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, said it is hypocritical for the Prime Minister to argue that marijuana must be legalized so that the government can better control its danger to public health and safety when deadly opioids are being deliberately kept in the black market. Plus, he argued, Ottawa has already begun the de facto regulation of heroin by bolstering a program to prescribe pharmaceutical-grade doses of the drug to severe addicts.

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"What we're going to see in Canada within a year is what is widely understood to be the most dangerous drug – heroin – and the most benign drug cannabis both the subject of regulation," Dr. Werb said. "So then the question is what about the drugs in the middle?"

For now, Ottawa is not interested in forming an arm's-length body to study the controversial question of decriminalizing or legalizing more drugs, the Health Minister's spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.

Over all, British Columbia is on pace to lose more than 1,500 people to drug overdoses this year, compared with an average of about 200 during the first decade of this century. Fentanyl has been detected in 78 per cent of overdose deaths so far this year, up from 67 per cent last year.

Cities elsewhere in Canada are also grappling with the overdose crisis. Toronto is launching an interim supervised drug-use site – the first such officially sanctioned facility in Canada's most populous city – in response to a spike in suspected overdoses. One weekend last month saw four deaths and more than 20 overdoses in the city's downtown core. Three permanent sites are in the works but won't open until the fall. Supervised drug-use sites are also under review in such other Canadian cities as Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton.

Judy Darcy, B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said she doesn't know if Canada will ever regulate other illicit drugs.

"Think about how long it's taken this country to get to the place of decriminalization of marijuana, so these are difficult conversations," she said.

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Canadian society must first stop the stigmatization of drug users before federal drug laws change, she said.

"In the meantime, we will push the envelope and do everything we can within the current framework," she said.

Video: Toronto opens supervised drug-use site amid concerns over overdoses (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
News reporter

Mike Hager is a general assignment reporter at the newspaper’s B.C. bureau. He grew up in Vancouver and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College and Langara College. Before joining The Globe and Mail, he spent three years working for The Vancouver Sun. More

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