Justin Trudeau maintains that the fentanyl crisis is still no reason to regulate hard drugs

Despite B.C. setting new records for overdose deaths five years in a row, the prime minister says Ottawa will not legalize and regulate hard drugs

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      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has once again said his government is not considering legalizing and regulating hard drugs in response to Canada’s overdose epidemic.

      In an interview today (August 1), Global News anchor Sonia Sunger suggested that legalizing hard drugs could help save lives “Touching on the ongoing opioid crisis, considering the way things are going, do you think it’s time to look at a change in our drug laws?” she asked.

      Trudeau, who was in Vancouver after touring areas of B.C. affected by the summer’s wildfires, talked around the question for a minute.

      “We’re open to looking at a broad range of issues,” he said. Trudeau then listed a few measures that Ottawa has taken, including approving applications for supervised-injection sites across the country.

      “There’s a lot of things we’ve done,” he said.

      “We’re not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we’re doing with marijuana.”

      Trudeau emphasized that the Liberal government is legalizing marijuana for two reasons: to protect children from drugs and to minimize the involvement of organized crime in the cannabis trade. He did not explain why the same logic does not apply to legalizing hard drugs.

      “Why aren’t you looking at decriminalizing other drugs?” Sunger asked again.

      “Because there’s a lot of other tools that we are using right now instead,” Trudeau replied. “We are going to focus on getting the control and regulation of [the] marijuana regime right, and that’s quite a handful right now. We’re not looking at any other steps.”

      B.C. is on track to see more than 1,500 overdose deaths by the end of 2017. That compares to an average of 204 fatal overdoses each year from 2001 to 2010.

      Last June, Mayor Gregor Robertson described the situation as “a bloodbath in all corners of Vancouver with no end in sight”.

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answered questions about Canada's overdose epidemic while in B.C. touring areas affected by the summer's wildfire season.

      Global News’s line of questioning is based on the premise that if hard drugs are legalized and then regulated by the government, authorities would remove fentanyl and other dangerous contaminants from the supply chain. That would save lives and also minimize profits that organized-crime syndicates earn from the illegal-drug trade today. As Trudeau said in his interview with Global News, those are the positive outcomes that his government understands will come from legalizing marijuana.

      (Legalization involves bringing the drug supply under government control and regulating—and possibly taxing—proceeds from the sale of narcotics that were previously illegal. Decriminalization, on the other hand, removes criminal penalties for the sale and possession of drugs but leaves the supply chain outside of government control and in the hands of organized crime.)

      A number of B.C. politicians and top-level health officials have said that the fentanyl crisis requires a rethink of drug prohibition, and quite a few have gone further, to argue in favour of legalization.

      In July 2016, B.C.’s former health minister, Terry Lake, said: “I would say that we have recognized over the years that the war on drugs has largely been a failure....And I think all levels of government are recognizing that, so let’s put a public-health lens on this, treat it as a health and social issue that we need to manage...I think there’s a general movement in that direction.”

      In April 2016, Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer and vice president of public health for Vancouver Coastal Health, said: “Personally, I think we need to be thinking about the decriminalization of drug use and perhaps having legal options for all drug users, including opioid drug users, so that they don’t have to go to the illicit drug market for their addiction.”

      In January 2017, Don Davies, NDP MLA for Vancouver Kingsway, told the 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].”

      And in February 2017, Dr. Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre and a member of Trudeau’s own party, told the Straight: “This is the discourse that we must have now. 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.’ ”

      On July 13, the Straight reported that Vancouver’s social-housing providers have already essentially decriminalized drugs on their own. The provincial government’s four largest partners on housing have integrated what they call “shared-using rooms” into many of their buildings.


      Last March, the leader of the B.C. Green party, Andrew Weaver, told the Straight he supports legalization but added he doesn’t think Canada is ready for the government to legalize hard drugs.

      “If you want to deal with organized crime in the drug area, legalization is the way forward,” Weaver said. “But we’re not ready for that here in Canada yet.”

      During his interview with Global News, Trudeau mentioned that he has met with frontline responders who are struggling with Vancouver’s fentanyl crisis in the Downtown Eastside.

      As the Straight reported last January, there was one message that the stakeholders who were in that meeting repeatedly emphasized to the prime minister.

      “Everyone brought up full legalization,” the Portland Hotel Society’s Coco Culbertson said when interviewed for that story. “His [Trudeau’s] reaction was that it made common sense but that creating a policy that reflects common sense, especially around drug-policy reform, is far more complicated than he anticipated.”

      Travis Lupick is a journalist based in Vancouver. His first book, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction, will be published in October 2017. You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.