A year ago, the federal government was told that if it wanted to stem the tide of overdose deaths from a toxic drug supply, it had to regulate that supply.
“Drug regulation will have the biggest impact on ending the drug toxicity death crisis,” the expert substance use task force told the government in its final report.
A year later — as deaths continue to rise — that key recommendation has not been implemented, along with other key recommendations from the task force’s two reports, including immediately scaling up safer drug supply and decriminalizing drug possession across the country.
“The main thrust of the second report is that if you want to stop killing people, you have to actually intervene and regulate it,” said Dr Kwame McKenzie, task force co-chair and CEO of the Wellesley Institute.
“We also said we believe the normal course of business is part of the crisis, and that our war on drugs eventually became a war against the people who use drugs,” McKenzie said.
“If the number of deaths rises, we haven’t done enough. It’s that simple. We haven’t done enough and we need to do more.”
Canada is in the throes of an overdose crisis, driven by a drug supply tainted with potent opioids. Commissioned by the government, the task force said last year that “it is time for a paradigm shift in policy,” noting that Canada has the “fastest growing overdose death rate in the world.”
More than 7,500 people died last year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which estimates the number of deaths will remain high or increase this year.
There has been some movement from government in the year since the task force released its final reports. An exemption has been granted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in British Columbia for three years from next year, and Ottawa has also invested millions of dollars in pilot projects for safer supplies and other services that proponents say are not nearly enough.
But a task force signature recommendation has not been implemented: to “immediately develop and implement a single public health framework” for all psychoactive substances, including drugs that are currently illegal, along with tobacco, alcohol and cannabis.
“This framework should aim to minimize the size of the illicit market, bring stability and predictability to regulated markets for substances, and provide access to safer substances for those at risk of injury or death from toxic illicit substances,” the statement wrote. task force in its report.
“There is a clear urgency to this work.”
Pointing out that alcohol became more potent and dangerous during the Prohibition era, when it was made in small quantities to make it easier and cheaper to transport, McKenzie said the same has happened with illegal drugs.
“We have smaller, more potent drugs, and the next person is trying to make a smaller drug that’s more potent than the last one,” he said.
“That’s how we got to these cheap, very potent drugs that kill people.”
Ideally, a person should be able to walk into a controlled environment such as a pharmacy and purchase a drug that is currently illegal, said Donald MacPherson, task force member and executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.
“We have two of the most dangerous drugs in the world that are readily available to people — alcohol and tobacco — and we trust people to control their use,” he said.
He said a “very small fraction” of Canadians use illegal drugs, while the harm from the toxic stockpile is disproportionate to that number of people.
“It’s time to create a level playing field and that’s what that recommendation was trying to achieve,” he said. “Our regulations on psychoactive substances are confused. You can buy alcohol in the supermarket, but you can be arrested if you have a gram of cocaine with you.”
MacPherson said he doesn’t know if the recommendation has been worked on. “If we don’t implement these recommendations, we will continue to do more of the same, and more of the same will give us the same results: Tens of thousands of people will die as a result of a toxic drug market,” he said.
MacPherson met with Secretary of State for Mental Health and Addiction Carolyn Bennett and said: “I know Secretary Bennett uses (the report). In her meetings with us she is aware, she has it, she has notes on it. written about.”
He also said that work is underway to establish national standards for treatment services and resources, another of the task force’s recommendations.
McKenzie said it’s not even clear whether the government has accepted the recommendation on regulation. He said the task force has given the government a “blueprint” based on the evidence, and said it is the duty of both liberals and provincial governments to show their work.
“If people don’t pull out the expert task force blueprint, then from the federal government and counties we need to see an alternative blueprint because people are dying,” McKenzie said.
He praised the government for the progress made so far, but said he would like to see more money and resources for services to racialized groups and the LGBTQ+ community.
Bennett’s office referred the Star’s questions to Health Canada, which did not answer whether the government supports all of the recommendations.
“Health Canada is reviewing the task force’s recommendations to inform the path forward,” the agency said in a statement, while also saying that “implementation is still underway.”
“They need to be brave,” Natasha Touesnard, executive director of the Canadian Association of People that Use Drugs, said of the government’s lack of action on the task force’s recommendations.
She stepped down as co-chair of the task force toward the end of her job due to the lack of other active drug users on the panel. Touesnard said the task force delivered a “kick-ass report” that she wishes the government would take immediate action given the rising number of overdose deaths.
“Every time I think it’s going to happen, it doesn’t, and it hurts me to think they don’t think so much of us and secondly that they’re okay with us dying,” she said.
“Maybe in 10 years someone can pick up (the report) and dust it off and think, ‘Why the hell didn’t we do this?'”