Health·Second Opinion

Why the opioid crisis isn't a bigger federal election issue

The death toll from the opioid crisis has skyrocketed since the last federal election, but experts and advocates calling for more political action say it's not being prioritized by the federal leaders in this year's campaign because of the stigma of drug use and a need to appear tough on crime.

12,800 Canadians have died as a result of the opioid crisis since 2016, PHAC says

A drug user wearing a hat sits in a chair near a table with a lamp and injects a needle into their arm.
A drug user injects heroin at the Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site in downtown Toronto in December 2018. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

The death toll from the opioid crisis has skyrocketed since the last federal election, but experts and advocates say it should be a bigger election priority.

More than 12,800 apparent opioid-related deaths occurred since January 2016, when the federal government first started tracking the data, and March 2019, according to the latest available statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Last year alone, 4,588 Canadians died from opioids, meaning every two hours a life was lost. Another 1,082 Canadians have died in the first three months of 2019, the most recent time period for which data is available.

"I recognize that governments have a lot of issues to attend to. But when the equivalent of a fully loaded 747 is crashing every five or six weeks and killing everyone aboard in Canada, that sounds like an emergency," says Dr. David Juurlink, head of clinical pharmacology at the University of Toronto. 

"There's lots more to be done."

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Health officials, harm reduction advocates, policy experts, and drug users have called on the next federal government to take stronger measures to tackle the crisis, such as decriminalizing illegal drugs, declaring a national public health emergency, ensuring a safe opioid supply for users, and expanding supervised injection sites.

Experts say the stigma of drug use and a need to appear tough on crime in the eyes of voters makes the opioid crisis a hard topic for political leaders to address on the campaign trail.

"It's still a difficult issue for politicians to talk fluently about," says Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, a policy advocacy group made up of about 50 organizations.

"They're reticent to say much about it for fear of losing votes."

Liberals reject drug decriminalization

The idea of decriminalizing drugs in Canada was discussed at the Liberal convention in Halifax last April, but the party later rejected the notion and focused instead on the legalization of cannabis.

"On that particular issue, as I've said, it's not part of our plans," Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told a news conference at the time.

The party has committed to spending $100 million over the next two years on drug treatment programs to combat addiction. It has also increased the number of supervised injection sites to 44 across the country. In 2015, by comparison, there was only one, in Vancouver.

The Liberals also announced this month they would make drug treatment court the "default option" for first-time non-violent offenders charged "exclusively" with simple possession if elected. 

Zoe Dodd, a co-organizer of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, a grassroots organization made up of harm reduction workers, health care providers and drug users, called the move "backwards." 

"We want decriminalization so we have less people going before the criminal justice system, which is what drug treatment court is," she said. 

"It's an expansion of it. You have to plead guilty. We have judges as therapeutic evaluators when they're supposed to be unbiased arbitrators. It's a terrible system."

Conservatives against supervised injection sites

The Conservatives dismissed the notion of drug decriminalization outright and have said the party will not expand access to supervised injection sites nationwide. 

"I don't believe that's the way to go down," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said of decriminalization during a campaign stop in Saint John, N.B., late last month.

Scheer called the Liberal approach allowing for more supervised injection sites nationwide to tackle the opioid crisis "terrible," but has provided few details on his party's approach. 

"We will have more to say on addictions in general, but our focus is getting people off of dangerous drugs, not maintaining a lifetime of addiction," he said. "That's the direction we're going to go in and we'll have more to say.

The party will release its plan later in the campaign, he said.

"The Conservatives put us in the dark ages for 10 years when they fought us about harm reduction," says Dodd, who helps run the Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site in downtown Toronto. 

"We could have been better prepared for this crisis had we not been spending our time fighting them for just the basic survival of harm reduction." 

NDP stops short of safe drug supply

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh has said that if elected, he would immediately declare a public health emergency over the opioid crisis and stop the criminalization of people dealing with addiction. 

"I'm open to any conversation about any solution that's going to save lives," Singh said in Vancouver this week. 

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has called on all party leaders, including the NDP, to consider a proposal to allow users access to pharmaceutical-grade heroin to prevent overdose deaths from potentially dangerous drugs laced with fentanyl.

"The opioid crisis is devastating and we're losing," Singh said after meeting with Stewart Wednesday. But he didn't sign on to Stewart's plan.

"I'm open to the discussion around how we can save lives and anything that has backing of evidence and experts. We need to be open to having that conversation."

Karen Ward, a long-time drug user and advocate for drug users in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, told CBC News more needs to be done to increase access to safe drug supply.

"This is a dire situation that needs, at this point, it's gone so far that it needs serious and frankly brave action," she said. "That's not an easy thing to discuss politically." 

Greens all in on decriminalization, safe supply

The Green Party of Canada is the only federal party committed to the decriminalization of drug possession, access to a safe drug supply, declaring a national health emergency, and the expansion of supervised injection sites nationwide.

"This is not a criminal issue. This is a health issue, and we have to adequately support people in our society who are dealing with illness and ill health," Leader Elizabeth May told CBC's The Early Edition last month.

"If we don't control it, we will lose people."

MacPherson believes this will be the last time the opioid crisis isn't a major election issue, because the number of Canadians dying from opioid-related overdoses will only continue to rise.

"The deaths are only going to come down when the supply changes," he said. 

"And I don't see why the government is missing a big opportunity to just take a chance … but there's so much stigma around doing that." 

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This graphic shows the number of drug samples that have tested positive for fentanyl by Health Canada's Drug Analysis Service (DAS). DAS tests approximately 130,000 drug samples from law enforcement agencies across Canada per year


  • The emailed version of this newsletter included a graphic which contained incorrect information attributed to Health Canada. We regret the error and an accurate graphic has been included in this story above for clarity.
    Oct 07, 2019 3:45 PM ET