The leader of the B.C. Green party has said that the fentanyl crisis is a reason for Canada to have a national debate about legalizing drugs, including heroin.
“This is a very important discussion that we need to have,” Andrew Weaver told the Straight. “If you want to deal with organized crime in the drug area, legalization is the way forward. But we’re not ready for that here in Canada yet.”
Weaver is the MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head and a distinguished climate scientist. He explained that while studies show that there are benefits to legalizing drugs both for individual addicts and society as a whole—improving people’s physical health and reducing crime, for example—the general public requires more time and education to better understand those issues and the controversial policies to which they relate.
Weaver emphasized he would not want the legal distribution and sale of narcotics to occur without improved access to treatment. He said that all three levels of government would need to coordinate on complimentary programs that must be deployed in conjunction with any legal system for the government distribution and sale of heroin.
“In isolation, no single policy like legalization or decriminalization is actually going to deal with the issue,” Weaver said. “Because there are a multitude of issues.
“Number one is, why are people taking drugs in the first place? Number two is, if they are addicted, how do we get them into recovery? Number three is, the crime associated with illegal drugs. Number four is the ability of addicts to get access [to drugs], so that they don’t have to find money through illicit ways. Number five is public acceptance of any solutions that are brought forward.
“The latter is absolutely fundamental if we are going to actually come up with a long-term strategy to deal with the crisis we’re facing.”
(Decriminalization simply removes judicial penalties for possessing drugs, and leaves 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.)
Last year, 922 people in B.C. died of an illicit-drug overdose. The synthetic opioid fentanyl was detected in about 60 percent of those deaths. Between 2001 and 2010, the average number of people in B.C. killed by illicit drugs on an annual basis was 212.
Weaver said his opinions on legalization and his decision to call for a debate on the issue were partly inspired by Dr. Hedy Fry, the long-time Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre.
Last February, the Straight reported that Fry wants an open debate about legalizing narcotics in response to the fentanyl crisis.
“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.’ ”
The previous month, the Straight reported that Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway and Opposition health critic, similarly said he wants an open debate about legalizing drugs.
“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.”
More recently, Sam Sullivan, the Liberal MLA for Vancouver–False Creek, told the Straight he believed many of the 922 people who died of an illicit-drug overdose last year in B.C. would still be alive today if heroin was legal and regulated by the government.
“Most of those people would probably be alive right now,” Sullivan said. “When you have a product that is regulated and when people know what is in it, that will be safer for everybody.”
Answering reporters’ question in Victoria on March 2, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated his government will not legalize hard drugs.
"We are not planning on including any other illicit substances in the move towards legalizing and controlling and regulating," Trudeau said in reference to the Liberal government’s effort to legalize recreational marijuana sales.
During the same round of questions, Trudeau made a concise argument in support of that process.
“We know that criminal organizations and street gangs are making billions of dollars off of the sale of marijuana,” he said. “We feel that regulating it, controlling it will bring that revenue out of the pockets of criminals and put it into a system where we can both monitor, tax it and ensure that we are supporting people who are facing challenges related or unrelated to drug use."