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Opinion: Inaction, misdirection, and apathy: Federal election missing the mark on overdose

When it comes to substance use and overdose, the major federal parties seem to be working from the same incorrect premise: This is all about addiction.
An emergency crew responds to an overdose in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. File photo by Dan Toulgoet

Nearly 7,000 Canadians died last year of a drug poisoning and this election campaign has made one thing absolutely clear to people who use drugs and to their loved ones: nobody cares.

As someone who’s life involves working with people in my community and fighting for policy change, the absence of any real discussion or analysis about how we’ll end the national overdose crisis has been disheartening and enraging. In about week Canadians will (once again) head to the polls. To date much of the talk for this election has centred around whether an election was even necessary, COVID response, gun control, privatized health care, and a few whispers around climate change. Meanwhile, 17 Canadians are dying every day because our policies around substance use do far more to harm to people than they do to protect them.

Since 2016, more than 21,000 Canadians have died of an overdose. More than five years ago, British Columbia declared a public health emergency in response. Over those past five-plus years, fatal and non-fatal overdoses are increasing not only in BC, but in every province that bothers to track and report them. What little change that has been made to address overdoses has done nothing to reverse this terrifying and tragic trend. At this point, every death is not just preventable, it’s foreseeable.

Yet Canadians don’t seem to care all that much, and that apathy is reflected in each of the federal party platforms. Instead, while division seems to be the name of game in politics, when it comes to substance use and overdose, the major federal parties seem to be working from the same incorrect premise: this is all about addiction.

The Conservatives promise to invest in more treatment beds, while the ones that already exist sit empty because people can’t afford them. The Liberals say they’ll invest in more in treatment without a peep about decriminalization or safer supply. The NDP promises to decriminalize those who are “struggling with addiction” while at the same time cracking down on organized crime. All of these promises amount to little more than colouring around the edges.

All of them seem intent on misrepresenting the root cause of overdoses in order to avoid having to address the policy change that’s really needed. This issue should come down to a signal question about whether their party is prepared to legally regulate drugs. The Greens and Bloq Quebecois at least have expressed in their platforms a plan for how they would approach decriminalization and a legal framework, but the frustration with the majority of the platforms has been expressed in election report cards by groups like Moms Stop the Harm, Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and Doctors for Decriminalization.

The worst of it all is that voters don’t seem to care enough to hold our elected officials accountable. Polls show that the overdose crisis doesn’t even register to most voters, if they’re even being asked about drug policy at all in those surveys. We’re not pushing politicians to change anything, so why would they if it’s not politically advantageous?

For myself, for people who’ve lost someone to an overdose, and for those who are on the front lines of this crisis, this is all incredibly heartbreaking. Perhaps the most discouraging part of all of this is that the blueprint for what the federal government can and should do has already been laid out. It simply needs to be followed.

In April, MP Don Davies introduced a bill to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and enact a national strategy to end harms caused by drug policy. The response was a resounding silence. Two months later, Health Canada’s Expert Task Force on Substance Use submitted a report with their own recommendations, almost none of which can be found in the party platforms. 

Why are federal parties ignoring the advice of experts to end overdose? Because they can. And if we continue to let them, then each of us bears responsibility for every single overdose death after September 20.

Guy Felicella is a Peer Clinical Advisor at the BC Centre on Substance Use. Follow him on Twitter at @guyfelicella.