As It Happens

Why this former Harper adviser had a change of heart about supervised injection sites

When Benjamin Perrin worked for Stephen Harper's Conservative government, he says he was blinded by "horrifically immoral" ideology about supervised injection sites. Now he says he's a strong advocate for them.

'I had allowed my own political ideology to take the place of evidence,' says Benjamin Perrin 

Benjamin Perrin, former legal adviser to the Prime Minister's Office, says he's had a dramatic change of heart about the benefits of safe consumption sites. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

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When Benjamin Perrin worked for Stephen Harper's Conservative government, he says he was blinded by his party's "immoral" and "antiquated" ideology about supervised injection sites.

The UBC law professor was a top criminal justice adviser to former prime minister Harper from 2012 to 2013. During that time, he says he strongly believed the solution to Canada's overdose crisis was tough laws that criminalize illicit drugs and the people who use them. 

Now, Perrin is a strong advocate for safe injection sites, speaking out against premiers in Ontario and Alberta who are working to shut them down. 

Perrin wrote about his change of heart in the Calgary Herald, and in his new book Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada's Opioid Crisis, which comes out in March.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What's brought you to this epiphany, if I can use that word, on safe injection sites?

Like many people over the last few years, I continue to follow the news stories and ... people were dying of overdose deaths in our city of Vancouver, where I live now.

And as I saw the numbers continue to grow, it started to concern me for two reasons. One, I had been part of the Conservative government, the government that set up the current approach to drug policy in Canada. It was clearly not working.

And the second thing was that we were really, as a country, going about our business and not doing anything really beyond talking about it.

So I did something that I hadn't really done before— and that was I prayed about it. I asked God to kind of give me a heart of compassion. I prayed for him to take my heart of stone and turn into a heart of flesh.

A staff member works at a supervised injection site in Ottawa. (Ryan Tumilty/CBC)

In addition to doing that soul searching you just described, you got into the data, the information, the actual reviews, the peer-reviewed studies, the evidence. And so at what point did you start to consult that and realize that your view on this had been ill-informed?

The evidence has always been there for, you know, supporting supervised injection sites. The problem with, you know, people like me is that I had allowed my own political ideology to take the place of evidence.

And the problem we have right now with the country as well, is very antiquated views towards drug policy, is that it's really based on, you know, blaming people. It's very critical and harsh of people who use drugs.

And that sort of spirit of, you know, that we're better than them was something that I suffered from too. And it was only when I had this change of heart I could be open to change my mind.

But this evidence didn't show up in the past year or so. This has been around, well, since the first safe injection sites were developed. And they have been doing these reviews — as you point out in your article — more than 100 peer-reviewed studies overwhelmingly showing that safe consumption sites have saved lives and that there haven't been any overdoses at these safe-injection sites. So why was it so difficult to get that evidence?

This is the question that I think we still have, really. Why are other people not convinced by it? I am.

And what I've come to conclude is that we, as a society, view people who use drugs as less worthy. We blame them. We, as a society, don't care what the evidence says. We have treated them with condemnation.

And I went through a journey of actually speaking with people who used drugs, meeting with them, their family members, people whose children have overdosed and died, and seen them, seen their tears.

I talked to the police and the judges and the prosecutors and the border guards, who all say that the current system is failing on multiple fronts. It's a system-wide failure.

And I have committed to sharing that process by which I went through this change of heart to try to hopefully convince others who have not yet come around to the data that we need to do that.

The scientific evidence, the criminology evidence that support things like supervised consumption sites, is just unprecedented. ... In my 20 years of public policy work, it is the strongest case for a public health or public policy intervention, for that matter, of anything I've ever seen.

Yet, we have, you know, premiers of two provinces —  in Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney; in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford — who continue to resist and are curtailing hours and funding. And it's costing lives, and it's devastating, and I felt a real moral obligation now to speak up about that.

An attendant holds equipment at a safe injection site in Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

But when Stephen Harper vowed [in 2015] to continue to fight [the] expansion of safe injection sites, he said the data are very mixed ... and that this was going to bring drugs into communities if they allow these sites. So what was that based on? You were in that government from 2012 to 2013. Where were they getting the ideas from?

I would love to know. I've never seen any conservative politician ever provide any evidence to back up any of those claims that you just mentioned. The fact is there is no evidence. That's why.

Something that has not been part of the conversation on drug use has been how people of faith engage in the conversation.

When I got into researching drug policy ... the data is all there. It was my heart that needed to come alongside, and that's when my faith came in.

Drugs cause crime and destruction. That was the Conservative mantra. And therefore we need to make them illegal. ... That's the mindless thinking that goes into that form of policy, and it is costing lives.- Ben Perrin, UBC law professpr 

But why didn't the heart kick in with the Stephen Harper government? I'm just going to go back to that. We're talking about 11 years. How many lives were lost during that more than a decade of a government that refused to look at the evidence that you're describing?

I was essentially someone who raised up going to church. But politics was really my god. It was power. And people get in power, and they keep power. And when you join a political party, you sign on for the whole smorgasbord.

I had never given any thought to drug policy. It was dogma. It was drugs cause crime and destruction. That was the Conservative mantra. And therefore we need to make them illegal. And anything that could possibly facilitate them needs to be quashed.

That's the mindless thinking that goes into that form of policy, and it is costing lives.

But the policy, the anti-drug strategy of the decade previous that led to more arrests, longer sentences, compulsory minimum sentences, what effect do you think that had on addicts and people who continued in that lifestyle, and the people who lost lives because of that?

Lives were lost. And, in fact, lives are being lost now.

The science shows that many of them are are horrifically suffering from things like childhood trauma, which drastically increases the likelihood of people becoming addicted to substances, genetics, mental health disorders, you know, intergenerational trauma.

People just can't stop using. And blaming them and demonizing them, and conservative politicians trying to win votes off doing that, is unconscionable. It is sick and wrong and we need to stop it.

People need to stand up within various conservative parties and within the constituencies who support these leaders and let them know they're not willing to tolerate these policies of ignorance that continue to cause people to die. It has to end now.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hikes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.