British Columbia

Decriminalization of drugs 'not a silver bullet' for overdose crisis, prime minister says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not back decriminalization of drugs as a public-health response to the country's escalating opioid poisoning crisis, insisting on Wednesday that the approach, while raised as an option by advocates and medical officials across the country, is not a "silver bullet'' solution.

Focus is instead on safe supply, Justin Trudeau says in interview with CBC Vancouver

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen in Brockville, Ont., on Aug. 21, rejected calls to decriminalize possession of harder drugs on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not back decriminalization of drugs as a public-health response to the country's escalating opioid crisis, insisting on Wednesday that the approach, while raised as an option by advocates and medical officials across the country, is not a "silver bullet'' solution.

Trudeau is facing renewed pressure to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs, as officials in several provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta, say they are grappling with an increasing number of deaths related to the toxic drug supply amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The prime minister was firm on his stance on the policy in an interview with CBC Vancouver on Wednesday, saying the government is prioritizing other options such as greater access to a safe supply of opioids.

"I think in any crisis like this, there is not one silver bullet," the prime minister told The Early Edition on Wednesday.

"We're prioritizing the things that are going to make the biggest difference immediately," he said, citing Ottawa's plans for "ensuring" a safer supply of drugs.

"The opioid crisis is much more of a health issue rather than a justice issue."

Many illegal drugs have been found to contain the opioid fentanyl — a substance up to 100 times more toxic than morphine. According to the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, it is one of the reasons why today's illegal drug supply is "so unpredictable and highly toxic" and a major part of the overdose crisis facing the country. 

More than half a dozen officials and groups — including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, B.C. Premier John Horgan, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and many of her provincial counterparts like B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry — have called on the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in order to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, seen at a news conference on June 26, has for years called for the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said later Wednesday that while she hadn't heard Trudeau's comments directly, the provincial government will "continue to engage" with the federal government on the issue.

"The position of our government has been from the beginning that addiction is not a moral issue. Addiction is not a character failure. Addiction is a health issue and it should be treated that way," Darcy said.

"It should not be treated as a criminal issue. And so we will continue to press forward on that issue."

Darcy added the province is working with federal officials on increasing access to safe supply.

When asked what the province can do on its own to decriminalize, Darcy said pilot programs are underway in Vancouver, Abbotsford and Vernon and "showing really good results."

In Abbotsford, Darcy said, police are teaming up with peer support workers.

Instead of "criminalizing" people who have small amounts of drugs for personal use, she said, the teams connect them with health care, mental health and addiction supports.

"We believe that's the way to go," Darcy said.

Recent data has shown a spike in the number of people dying of illicit drug overdoses since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In June, B.C. reported an increase of 130 per cent in the number of deaths compared to June of last year. The number of people dying with "extreme" concentrations of fentanyl in their bodies has also risen.

The B.C. government expanded access to a safe supply of prescription drugs in the spring.

Officials have said border closures have disrupted the usual flow of drugs into B.C., leading the supply to be replaced by unstable and unpredictable substances produced locally by those who might be inexperienced. 

The pandemic also restricted access to supervised consumption sites, leaving users isolated at home with these potentially toxic drugs.

Last week, the federal government announced it would be spending more than $580,000 on a new project to offer a safe supply of opioids in Toronto. 

"We are moving forward aggressively on ensuring a safer supply to be able to prevent people from having to get this  terrible, terrible fentanyl, carfentanil into their systems. This is a significant step," Trudeau said Wednesday.

"And that is what we've moved forward on without having to take the step to decriminalization."

Last week, Ottawa also announced steps toward promised changes to federal drug policy, including funding to look at improving supervised consumption sites.

Federal prosecutors are now also being instructed to criminally prosecute only the most serious drug possession offences that raise public safety concerns and to find alternatives outside the criminal justice system for the rest, including simple possession cases.

Asked how much political pushback from the Opposition was influencing his hesitation on decriminalization, the prime minister replied, "very little."

"Increasingly, Canadians are looking at a range of newer actions that they're encouraging us to look at. And we're going to continue to work to make sure that the decisions we take are grounded in science and are the right ones for Canadians."

LISTEN | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks decriminalization of drugs:

The Canadian prime minister speaks with Stephen Quinn about the political headwinds he faces as we move towards the fall. 10:58

With files from The Canadian Press

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