In 1999, Dr. Hedy Fry flew to Switzerland to learn about how the European country had responded to a surge in drug-overdose deaths.
“I travelled around with the police,” the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre recounted in a telephone interview. If they found someone addicted to drugs who was injecting on the street, Fry continued, the police would stop and offer to take the individual to a clinic where there were a doctor and nurses.
“That person would register as an addict and would then, as a registered addict, go to a clinic to get their drugs,” she told the Georgia Straight. “The state paid for opiates.”
Fry recalled expressing skepticism to the officer serving as her tour guide.
“I said, ‘People in my part of the world will say that you are enabling.’ And he said, ‘No, what we are doing is cutting off organized crime. So people don’t have to buy adulterated stuff; they don’t have to wallow in the dirt; and they don’t have to mug people and steal money to buy their stuff.’ ”
Fry noted that at the time, Vancouver was dealing with a drug crisis similar to the one it struggles with today. Last year, illicit narcotics killed 914 people in B.C. The synthetic opioid fentanyl was linked to 60 percent of those deaths. In 1999, there were 272 fatal overdoses in B.C.
Today in Vancouver, there’s a small clinic in the Downtown Eastside where a select group of patients receives prescription heroin, or diacetylmorphine, as it is otherwise known. But it’s a tough program to get into and so far has enrolled barely more than 100 patients. The Swiss initiative that Fry discussed would make prescription heroin available with fewer hurdles and to a much wider population. What she described was the legalization and regulation of hard drugs.
“This is the discourse that we must have now,” Fry said. “Nobody is ramming anything down anybody’s throats. I’m not saying, ‘Let’s legalize.’ But I am saying, ‘It’s time we discussed this, openly and publicly.’ ”
In calling for a debate about legalization, Fry steps out ahead of any position taken by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Straight recently reported that in a January 29 meeting with stakeholders in Vancouver, Trudeau effectively said that legalization was not going to happen.
“The main thing that I pressed is that we need to have legalization and he tried to shut it right down,” recounted Laurie Shaver, president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and one of the frontline responders with whom Trudeau met. “He said that he’s had such a hard time with the marijuana that with heroin it would be even worse.”
The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to an interview request by deadline. On the campaign trail in March 2015, a journalist with the UBC–based Cited podcast asked Trudeau for his position on prohibition.
“I disagree with loosening any of the prohibition on harder drugs,” Trudeau responded. “I think that there is much that we can and should be doing around harm reduction. Insite is a great model of that, and I certainly want to see more safe injection sites opened around the country. And I am firm on the fact marijuana needs to be controlled and regulated and that prohibition isn’t working. But I’m not in favour of loosening restrictions on harder drugs.”
Fry listed a number of benefits she said have been studied at length and proven in peer-reviewed literature. Those include significant reductions in the risk of overdose death and decreases in both criminal activity and in policing and health-care costs.
(One 2007 aggregate study that reviewed 10 years of scientific literature covering heroin-assisted treatment [HAT] in six countries was published in the New York Academy of Medicine’s Journal of Urban Health. It describes “overall positive results of completed HAT trials undoubtedly justifying some role of HAT in the addiction treatment landscape”. It added, however: “The pressure is now on politics to use the evidence generated in the interest of reduced harms and costs related to the problem of heroin addiction.”)
On January 18, the Straight reported that Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway and Opposition health critic, has similarly said he wants an open debate about legalizing hard drugs in response to the fentanyl crisis.
“I think we are at the point, as a country, where we can start opening a dialogue about finding a better method of distributing drugs, legally, to those who are addicted to them so that we can avoid the unnecessary death, destruction, and crime that is so clearly associated with the current model [prohibition],” Davies said. “I am in favour of starting that dialogue.”
B.C.’s health minister and other high-level provincial officials have similarly voiced support for prescription heroin.
Fry said she personally is against decriminalization (often referred to as the Portugal Model). She noted that decriminalization would leave B.C.’s drug supply in the hands of organized crime.
“It wouldn’t touch the fentanyl part of all this,” Fry emphasized. Legalization would involve heavy regulations, she added, bringing supply under government control to eliminate the risks of unwanted substances like fentanyl and the much more toxic carfentanil.
"People will do whatever they need to do to get the drugs," she said. "They are at the mercy of organized crime. This is what we are trying to talk about. That criminality of it that we want to get rid of and look at controlling.”
Fry repeatedly noted that many studies have shown that legal-heroin programs have worked in countries like Switzerland for more than a decade now.
“Without suggesting that I think our government is going to do it, I do think that it is time to talk about what is working in the rest of the world,” she said.