Despite record drug deaths amid coronavirus, Trudeau still won’t support decriminalization

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is continuing to distance himself from growing calls to decriminalize personal possession of hard drugs, despite a recent spike of overdose deaths across multiple provinces amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Asked whether it’s time to explore the move during an exclusive virtual interview with Global News’ Sophie Lui on Wednesday, Trudeau said decriminalization is “one option among many” that could help solve Canada’s opioid crisis, but that it’s not “a silver bullet.”

“We need to take a much more complex and a much more multifaceted approach, which we have been doing,” he said. “And I understand people are looking for a silver bullet. There isn’t one.

“We’re going to continue working closely with experts, with different orders of government, and we’re going to continue making fighting this epidemic a priority, even as we tackle the other crisis of (COVID-19).”

Several provinces — including British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta — have been seeing concerning increases in overdose fatalities since the COVID-19 pandemic began. June saw 177 deaths in B.C. alone, setting a new record, with May and July seeing nearly identical numbers.

While B.C.’s public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been calling for decriminalization since last year, the recent spikes in deaths led Premier John Horgan to write to Trudeau in July calling for Ottawa to adopt the move. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Canada’s chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam, and medical health officers in Toronto and Montreal have also voiced support for decriminalization this year.

Last month, the independent Public Prosecution Service of Canada directed federal lawyers to avoid prosecuting simple drug possession cases unless there are major public safety concerns, such as the safety of children. The directive asks prosecutors to instead seek alternative measures like restorative justice, Indigenous approaches and addiction treatment.

While the directive effectively achieves some of the goals of decriminalization, it stops short of wiping criminal offences for low level possession from the Criminal Code entirely, which is what advocates are ultimately calling for.

“Just because these cases aren’t ending up in court, it doesn’t mean police aren’t still using the fact that drug possession is criminalized as a reason to engage with people they may not otherwise engage with,” said Scott Bernstein, director of policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

“So these people — many of whom are marginalized, Indigenous, low-income — they may not be prosecuted, but they’re still getting arrested, searched, their drugs are confiscated and they’re maybe sent to jail for some time. So there are still negative impacts.”

Trudeau said his government is continuing to support safe consumption sites while “moving forward” with providing safe supplies of opioids to communities hard hit by the crisis. He said solutions will also come through increased investments in housing, mental health and addictions, which his government is committed to.

“There’s lots of different approaches and we’re going to listen and take a look at at a broad range of them,” he said.

Trudeau’s comments came during a series of meetings with officials in B.C. He said he spoke to Horgan earlier Wednesday about working together on solutions.

Last month, the federal Liberal government announced steps toward promised changes to federal drug policy, including a 60-day national consultation on supervised-consumption sites with a view to making them better and $582,000 in funding for a new Toronto project to offer a safe supply of opioids to reduce overdose deaths.

But Bernstein said Trudeau’s latest comments show Ottawa is continuing to ignore the evidence that decriminalization has proven to be effective in countries like Portugal, as well as the support of health officials.

“Nobody has ever said (decriminalization) is a silver bullet,” he said. “But it’s an evidence-based, proven policy option, and there’s really no excuse for the government to not be taking this seriously, or at least considering it.

“When even the police are recognizing that (criminalization) creates stigma, creates harms for people, increases risks, and costs a bunch of money … I just don’t know what else it will take for the prime minister to come on board with this. He’s on the wrong side of history here.”

—With files from the Canadian Press

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