On a sunny but cold January afternoon, Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway, met with people in the Downtown Eastside working on the front lines of the fentanyl crisis.
In a back alley near the intersection of East Hastings and Columbia streets, he spoke with Ann Livingston, a long-time advocate for harm reduction who helped bring North America’s first supervised-injection site to Vancouver. At a nearby overdose-prevention site, Davies, the Opposition health critic, met with volunteers watching over people injecting drugs. At the headquarters of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), long-time member Hugh Lampkin told Davies about the roles that childhood trauma and abuse often play in an addiction to opioids. Up the street at a needle depot, Daniel Benson, a peer employed by the Portland Hotel Society, outlined an argument for the full legalization and regulation of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.
Everyone recounted watching someone overdose on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that was linked to 60 percent of illicit-drug deaths in 2016. A few people told Davies they had lost a friend to the crisis.
At the end of it all, Davies said the argument for legalization raised questions he has been contemplating for some time.
“What I heard was a lot of people talking about the need to discuss finding safe, cheap ways to distribute drugs in a legal form,” he told the Georgia Straight. “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 was quick to add he was not in a position to articulate a policy on legalization for the federal NDP as a whole. But he said his personal view is that it is time to have a national conversation about bringing hard drugs into a regulatory system, perhaps similar to how powerful prescription narcotics like methadone and OxyContin are controlled by the federal government and regional health authorities.
“I am in favour of starting that dialogue,” he said. “When we drive people underground to buy drugs in unsafe circumstances—so that people are not sure of what they are getting, not sure of the concentration of what they are getting, and forced to do drugs furtively and in isolated circumstances—it leads to a host of problems that I saw very clearly on my walk.”
(It’s important to understand the difference between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization simply removes judicial penalties for possessing drugs, leaving supply in the hands of criminals who might cut drugs like heroin with even more dangerous substances such as fentanyl. Legalization involves bringing the supply of narcotics under government control, and heavily regulating their distribution and sales.)
Federal health minister Jane Philpott was unavailable for an interview. Reached via phone, her spokesperson, Andrew MacKendrick, took no position on the legalization and regulation of hard drugs but said that in shaping the government’s response to the overdose epidemic, nothing is off the table.
“We’re not going to shut down ideas if they may help address the crisis,” he told the Straight.
“The Minister will always have an open ear to suggestions and ideas on how we can continue working with our partners across the country to address this national public health crisis.”
Health Canada, MacKendrick emphasized, recently announced a $5-billion, 10-year investment in mental-health care that is designed, in part, to address the overdose epidemic.
It is estimated that more than 800 people in B.C. died of an illicit-drug overdose in 2016. That’s up from 510 the previous year and 370 in 2014.
In a December interview with the Straight, B.C. health minister Terry Lake said he has heard conversations about legalization happening at the federal level.
“When I was at the opioid summit in Ottawa [on November 18], people would bring this up,” he said. “The federal government, really, has the policy pen on the way we look at controlled substances. A lot of people are saying we should be like some countries in Europe and just legalize all drugs and make sure there is a safe supply. But I’m not sure. I don’t know enough.”
Davies said there are obvious needs for greater investment in prevention and treatment. But he noted that some people will continue to use opioids regardless.
“When you see people obtaining dangerous drugs off the street that are killing them, I think it would be really interesting—and a timely discussion to have—to see if we can distribute those drugs in the established pharmaceutical system,” he said.