What is the end goal for a policy that deals with drug addiction?
That’s the key question that political leaders and societal stakeholders should be considering as they announce ever more alarming initiatives in an attempt to limit the number of drug-overdose deaths across Canada.
After all, in the end, there are only two possible outcomes:
The first is to continue to maintain a small slice of society that wanders about aimlessly in “pharmaceutical oblivion” and remains wholly dependent on society for drugs, money, medical care, food and shelter. They are stripped of all human dignity and unable to contribute positively to society.
The second option is getting addicts into treatment. Nurturing them through detox, treatment, healing and renewal. Getting them to a place where their dignity is restored, and they become active members of society.
Now tell me – which is the most compassionate choice?
British Columbia, the epicentre of the epidemic, had 272 overdose deaths in 2001 and 474 in 2015. In 2022, there were 2,272. Nationally, there were 2,830 overdose deaths in 2016; that number jumped to 7,328 (an average of 20 per day) in 2022.
One thing is glaringly obvious – what we are doing is not working.
In BC, the Vancouver safe injection (or consumption) site (SIS) has been in place for the past 20 years. Now there are dozens of SISs across the country. There are safe supply initiatives that hand over hydromorphone pills, a highly addictive narcotic, like candy despite indications that users are selling them to make money to buy fentanyl, a drug that packs more of a punch. Marijuana (considered harmless by some and a not-so-harmless, entry level drug by others) has been legalized and possession of small amounts of hard drugs has been decriminalized.
Yet the drug overdose numbers keep climbing.
Many political leaders say we have to consider addiction as a medical issue. But there is nothing but rampant failure if we look at the health outcomes that stem from these supposedly progressive drug policies. Carrying on with these same measures should be a non-starter.
As a result, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) has descended into the kind of hell that has small businesses and locals on edge. Serious assaults and property crime have increased; businesses are closing, and some say their workers are afraid to walk home at night. Tent encampments, public defecation, needles on sidewalks and a general degradation of the living space have made the DTES a no-go zone for most of the city’s citizens. Even Canada Post has refused to deliver mail to parts of the DTES because of concerns for the health and safety of its workers.
All of this is a consequence of the broad initiative known as “harm reduction.” Yet our political leaders seem determined to stay the course in spite of the grim results.
In May, the Liberal government (along with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois) defeated a federal Conservative party motion to halt the safe supply of drugs. Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions, has said that harm reduction is necessary to reduce the “stigma, the fear and shame” that keeps drug users silent and “prioritizes the dignity and safety” of users.
Apparently, that’s the best justification she has for federal policies, yet, based on the escalating number of deaths alone, it is clear that harm reduction is failing miserably at upholding the dignity and safety of drug users.
A just-released Leger survey shows that Canadians are fed up with harm reduction measures. sJust 33% of Canadians support the decriminalization of street drugs (opioids, cocaine, meth and ecstasy). A significant majority want a greater focus on prosecuting those who bring drugs into the community (86%), more policing (72%) and tougher laws prohibiting street drug use (69%). Seven in 10 Canadians (71%) support involuntary treatment programs where addicts are required to attend addictions counselling in exchange for a safe supply of drugs.
In sum, Canadians are fed up. Our political leaders and their harm reduction policies have failed us, our communities and, most of all, our drug-addicted souls who are given every opportunity to use — but very few opportunities to get help.
It’s time to invest in detox beds and treatment centres. It’s time to talk about involuntary treatment programs. It’s time to establish education and work programs that get addicts back into the real world – that is where they will find dignity, safety and healing.
Susan Martinuk is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the author of “Patients at Risk: Exposing Canada’s Health-Care Crisis.”
Related video – Leaders on the Frontier Canada’s Opioid Crisis and How Canada Got There with Aaron Gunn – (1 hour 5 minutes)