VANCOUVER - Canada's political leaders must take bold action by joining forces to decriminalize illicit drugs and save lives in the midst of an unprecedented overdose crisis, a leading drug-policy expert says.
Donald MacPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's stance on legalizing marijuana to protect youth and stop the flow of profits to organized crime must also apply to drugs that have killed thousands of Canadians.
"That's very sad that he can't see the logic that he's using so loudly on cannabis to shift that logic to a far more serious problem," MacPherson said Wednesday.
MacPherson, who was the architect of Vancouver's four-pillar drug strategy in 2001, will receive the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy at Simon Fraser University on Oct. 10, recognizing his national influence on drug policy reform beyond harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement.
He said the toxic supply of the painkiller fentanyl, detected in 81 per cent of the opioid-related deaths in British Columbia between January and July, cries out for drastic action by politicians, who must put politics aside as they tackle addiction and mental illness as a health issue, not a criminal one.
"Mental health and addiction is definitely complex terrain but the drug policy that we continue to cling to, drug prohibition, is actually like a hammer," MacPherson said.
The failure of cannabis prohibition led to its upcoming legalization and prohibition of other drugs like heroin and cocaine has led to a thriving black market and mounting deaths, often because of fentanyl contamination, he said.
But the federal government is ignoring that reality, MacPherson said, while calling on Trudeau to "do the right thing" by following Portugal's example to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
The prime minister has already said Canada wouldn not be taking that approach.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh favours decriminalization, saying most people who face drug charges are poor, mentally ill or addicted.
NDP health critic Don Davies accused Trudeau of ignoring evidence-based drug policies for political reasons.
"The precise same arguments that underlie the decriminalization approach to cannabis apply with equal force to other drugs," he said. "Things like taking the black market and organized crime out of it and making sure that at the very least if Canadians are going to use drugs they have access to a safe, regulated supply, and keeping it out of the hands of children."
Davies said he recognizes that decriminalization is a substantial social, legal and political shift but all sectors of society, including the public, the medical profession, police forces and addiction experts must work together to deal with a pressing problem.
He called the Conservatives' stance against decriminalization to combat the opioid crisis "outdated, outmoded, ideological and harmful."
Conservative health critic Marilyn Gladue said decriminalization won't stop illicit drug use because "these people are doing it anyways, whether it's legal or not."
She said the government must prevent drugs from coming into the country and mount public awareness campaigns to try and stop people from trying drugs in the first place.
The previous Conservative government fought years of court battles in an effort to shut down Vancouver's Insite clinic, Canada's first supervised injection facility. It was also against expanding pharmaceutical-grade heroin treatment for people who have failed in other programs.
Gladue said Vancouver's Crosstown clinic, the only facility in North America to provide such heroin treatment, keeps people addicted, though the lead doctor there maintains it's the only hope for his patients.
MacPherson and other drug policy researchers have called for treatment programs using pharmaceutical-grade heroin to be expanded.
At least 2,816 Canadians died last year from opioid-related causes but Canada's public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has said that number is expected to surpass 3,000 by the end of 2017.
In British Columbia alone, the coroner's service reported 978 illicit drug overdose deaths in 2016. Between January and July this year, 876 people had died.
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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the wrong first name for Donald MacPherson.