Canada’s top doctor open to opioid decriminalization as COVID-19 threatens to worsen crisis in Alberta

CP-Web.  Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam is reflected in a television during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.

A nationwide discussion on decriminalizing hard drugs is needed as opioid-related deaths spike across Canada amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s top doctor said Friday.

The call from chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam comes as parts of the country record increased overdose fatalities in the months since the novel coronavirus struck Canada.

“Canadians should be seized with this particular crisis, which can actually happen to anyone and could also have increased risks right now for people who may be isolating at home,” Tam said during a news conference Friday, adding that the crisis is “escalating as we speak.”

Tam stressed that decriminalization isn’t the only option, adding increasing access to a safer supply of drugs and building more supervised consumption sites are among other critical steps needed to reduce opioid deaths.

In Alberta, the most recent stats available for opioid-related deaths are for the first three months of 2020, largely before the pandemic took hold. They show

a 12 per cent decline in deaths

from accidental opioid poisoning in the province from the previous year, with the Alberta Health Services Calgary zone home to the highest number of fentanyl deaths. Provincial officials said statistics through June 2020 would be released in upcoming weeks.

But some experts and advocacy groups worry there could be an increase in opioid-related deaths during the pandemic, a trend that has already borne out in provinces such as Ontario and B.C. In the latter province, there was a 130 per cent increase in June overdose deaths compared to June of last year.

Petra Schulz, co-founder of 

Moms Stop The Harm

, said the number of recently bereaved families who have reached out to the organization has skyrocketed in recent months.

“In Ontario and B.C., where we have specifics, we’ve seen overdose deaths like never before,” Schulz said.

“We don’t have numbers in Alberta, which we really should have right now, but one can only assume that the overdose rates here in Alberta are bad as well.”

Though statistics past March are not yet available, AHS

issued a health warning in June for the Edmonton region

following a spike in opioid overdoses and deaths, particularly involving carfentanil, a drug AHS says is about 100 times as potent as fentanyl. It’s tied to 16 deaths in the Edmonton area in the last week of May and first week of June alone.

Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said the reason for the spike in overdoses is likely twofold.

When the border closed, the drug supply in Canada became more dangerous as more drugs were made or altered in Canada, he said, but pandemic restrictions also saw safe injection sites and methadone clinics offering more limited services or closing altogether to prevent the spread of COVID-19, leaving drug users isolated with more toxic drugs.

In Alberta, Lethbridge’s only safe-consumption site

will close Aug. 31

— the same date as International Overdose Awareness Day, Schulz points out — after the United Conservative government pulled funding from the program in mid-July amid a financial scandal.

Premier Jason Kenney’s government stripped the funding after an audit found

more than $1.6 million in unaccounted funds

. A temporary mobile supervised consumption site operated by AHS opened nearby Aug. 17, though it is unclear whether a new fixed space will open in Lethbridge.

 The ARCHES Lethbridge facility is seen in this 2017 file photo.

Schulz said she worries both overdose deaths and social discord will surge in the town due to the closure.

“The Lethbridge site doesn’t only provide safe consumption. It also provides people with counselling treatment and culturally appropriate treatment for Indigenous people,” she said.

“My prediction for Lethbridge is we will see a spike in overdose rates, we will have more needles on the streets and the entire city will become an unsafe injection site.”

While Tam urged action to address the opioid crisis, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu was more tepid, insisting decriminalization is not a “silver bullet” solution.

Government has heard the calls from across the country for decriminalization and it’s something officials are “deliberating,” she said, but added she believes it’s not the only answer.

“It is really a suite of tools that’s needed,” Hajdu said Friday, pointing to a number of actions taken by the federal government to address substance use, including supporting supervised consumption sites and access to pharmaceutical-grade medications, also known as safer supply.

“Ensuring diversity of treatment is part of the strategy,” she said.

Though his government legalized the recreational use of cannabis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rejected calls to decriminalize possession of harder drugs, despite a resolution passed at the last Liberal convention calling for such an approach.

Alberta Justice said Sunday decriminalizing drugs would lead to “serious and unforeseen consequences” if done without establishing an accessible and comprehensive network of care. They touted their initiatives, including adding 4,000 addiction treatment spaces in Alberta.

“However, Alberta’s government looks forward to examining proposals put forward by the federal government and working to ensure we have effective treatment and recovery systems before making decisions about decriminalization,” Jonah Mozeson, chief of staff to Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, said in a statement.

Calls for the decriminalization of hard drugs have grown across Canada in recent months, with the Calgary Police Service in July

signalling support for the policy

, following the lead of Canada’s association of police chiefs.

“We seek not to criminalize addiction but to focus our efforts on those who would prey on the vulnerably addicted,” the CPS said in a statement at the time.

— With files from The Canadian Press, Lauren Boothby and Alanna Smith

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