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

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 pushed by advocates and public officials across the country, is not a “silver bullet” solution.

Trudeau is facing renewed pressure to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs, as several provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta, grapple 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 added, citing Ottawa’s plans on “ensuring” a safer supply of drugs.

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

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 and her counterparts in British Columbia, Toronto and Montreal — 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.

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.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on June 26. Henry, lauded for her response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has for years called for the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

The B.C. government expanded access to a safe supply of prescription drugs in the spring as the pandemic restricted access to safe consumption sites, leaving users isolated at home with potentially toxic drugs.

Officials have said border closures have also 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. 

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.”

Ottawa also announced last week 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, prorogued Parliament and the WE scandal:

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

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