In a recent video, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre falsely blamed overdose prevention efforts for Canada’s overdose crisis. Far from tackling this growing problem, the Conservative Party’s proposal—harsher laws and tougher sentences—will only make the crisis worse.
Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre decided to film his latest promotional video in front of a tent city near the port of Vancouver. Over a track of ambient screams and through a grainy filter, the Conservative leader offers his thoughts on why more and more Canadians are “hopelessly addicted to drugs” and dying from overdoses.
It is true that Vancouver has seen a massive spike in opioid-related deaths since 2015. Across Canada, moreover, there were 29,000 opioid-related deaths from 2016 through 2021. But why is this happening?
According to Poilievre, the overdose crisis is a “deliberate policy,” devised by “woke Liberal and NDP governments.”
This “woke” regime and its “safe supply” program, he claims, looked to “flood our streets with easy access to these poisons.”
Lies, conspiracy theories, and more lies
As is tradition, Poilievre is opportunistically ranting against a real problem. However, he places the blame in the wrong place and proposes a bogus solution. As the Toronto Star notes, Poilievre’s explanation is “a wholly fictional account of drug policy.”
While Poilievre paints a picture of an overdose crisis driven by a “woke” government handing out free illicit drugs, this bears little relation to reality.
For starters, the closest thing British Columbia has to a “safe supply” program is the federally-funded “SAFER initiative.” This program has existed, in various forms, since 2020, not since 2015 as Poilievre implies. The Safer Opioid Supply (SOS) program mainly provides controlled and tested quantities of hydromorphone, as well as suboxone and methadone as are more commonly used in Opioid Agnostic Therapy (OAT). Rather than “flood” the streets, the program offers pharmaceutical alternatives for those who would otherwise suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms or use untested street drugs.
Eighty six per cent of overdose deaths in B.C. are linked to fentanyl, which is exclusively found in the illegal drug market and not through programs like the SAFER initiative, despite what Poilievre claims. As the Canadian Press reported, within the pilot program: “Participants and staff reported a significant change in substance use, including a decreased risk of overdose and decreased use of street drugs.”
Vancouver Coastal Health also oversees Insite—Canada’s oldest safe injection site. It does not and has not ever provided Vancouver residents with “easy access” to opioids or any other drugs. But it does offer first aid and medical support to those who do use drugs. Since 2003, the program has had over 48,000 clinical treatment visits and 6,440 overdose interventions without a single death.
Poilievre also alludes to the federal government’s plans to temporarily exempt the possession of up to 2.5 grams of cocaine, amphetamines, opioids and other substances for personal use from the Controlled Drugs And Substances Act. This has substantial support from health experts but will not come into effect until January 2023.
As we can see, despite what Poilievre says, the crisis has not been caused by the harm reduction policies that aim to alleviate its worst effects.
What is really behind the overdose crisis?
While mentioning that opioids have been “over prescribed,” Poilievre conveniently makes no mention of the pharmaceutical giants behind this opioid crisis. For decades, companies like Purdue Pharma and Insys Therapeutics misrepresented Oxycontin as “addiction-proof” and spent years bribing doctors to over-prescribe fentanyl-based pain drugs. This led to a class-action lawsuit which resulted in a settlement in which Purdue Canada paid $150 million to federal, provincial, and territorial governments for healthcare costs attributed to opioid related damages. A more recent lawsuit seeks $1.1 billion in damages from Apotex, Bristol Myers Squibb, Johnson and Johnson, and the Jean Coutu Group for similarly promoting opioids without explaining the risks.
According to a CBC article: “Canadian drug makers enriched themselves at the expense of vulnerable patients by illegally and deceptively promoting highly addictive opioids.” Similar lawsuits in the United States have seen multiple companies forced to pay tens of billions of dollars in damages for profiting off of falsely promoting opioids. Such lawsuits actually bankrupted Purdue Pharma.
The reason why Poilievre ignores the fact that giant pharmaceutical capitalists manufactured the crisis is not hard to see. In typical right-populist fashion, Poilievre’s aim is to protect capitalism and therefore his proposed ‘solutions’ will serve to maintain social ills like the opioid crisis in a vicious spiral of corporate profiteering and police violence.
Poilievre’s account also conveniently ignores the social causes that push desperate people to depend on dangerous substances. Unemployment and poverty, especially in increasingly unaffordable cities, are linked to obvious mental health challenges—and some use drugs to cope. Additionally, studies have shown that evictions increase the likelihood of drug relapses.
Further, most of B.C.’s overdose deaths have not occurred in the “tent cities” Poilievre likes to scaremonger about, but rather in private residences. A large share of those who died from overdoses in 2021 were also employed. Many of those who died were injured workers who could not afford to be off work, they used opioids to cope with their physical pain.
Poilievre’s ‘solution’ will lead to more deaths
While ignoring the billion dollar pharmaceutical companies who profited off of the crisis, Poilievre’s ‘solution’ is to renew the war on drugs and cut funding from overdose prevention efforts.
“We know what works,” the Conservative leader said, “tougher laws and longer sentences,” for those, he claims, are “devoted to a life of crime and preying on innocent victims.”
He made the same point when Health Canada announced its plan to partially and temporarily decriminalize the substances implicated in the crisis.
But criminalization doesn’t stop people who are addicted to opioids from seeking them out. It pushes them to seek them out on the black market. The black market makes testing difficult and provides an obvious market incentive to manipulate substances and increase their potency.
This is why, for example, studies of street drugs by activists in Vancouver and Victoria, have noted a jump in the fentanyl content of street heroin—from six to 10 per cent pre-2020 to 20-30 per cent. “Tougher laws” will not help this.
Aside from new criminal laws, Poilievre also proposes to redirect funding away from overdose prevention and into “deep detox programs”—following the so-called “Alberta model.” This is based on the policy changes introduced by former Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who claimed that overdose prevention efforts were “NDP drug sites” aimed at “helping addicts inject poison into their bodies.” In its early months, the UCP government closed OPS facilities in Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge—in favour of an “abstinence-based” policy.
That meant redirecting funds from the existing facilities overwhelmingly to private and for-profit “detox” facilities—especially religious facilities closely linked to the Conservative movement.
This was contrary to the advice of Alberta Health Services, which has publicly supported harm reduction policies and acknowledged that “abstinence is not always a realistic goal for some people.”
Even at the physical level, opioid withdrawal can be “life threatening,” involving cold sweats, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, high blood pressure, rapid heart rates, and seizures.
Predictably, from 2019-2020, as the “Alberta model” was implemented, overdose deaths increased. If introduced federally, there is little reason to expect a different result.
The status quo isn’t working either
While Poilievre’s proposals are awful, it is true that the status quo clearly isn’t working either.
For one, SAFER Initiative is rather limited, only providing funding to 20 sites across Canada. Each site, according to the Canadian Press, is often limited to just one prescriber per city.
This has consequences for treatment. Hugh Lampkin, a DTES community member, told the Vancouver Sun the current SOS rules stop him from having a life outside of his substance use. “You’re putting a chain on your legs, you can’t go anywhere. No school, work, all that stuff gets hurt because you have to go in.”
But, more fundamentally, the current policy only treats the symptoms of a huge social problem. Solving the crisis will require more than just an SOS program. In London, Ontario, a study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found a substantial drop in infections and overdoses among those involved in the SOS program. However, the same study stressed the need for a “multifaceted response” of housing security and social services to achieve further health improvements.
Yet, these same programs are being cut by the Federal Liberals and by provincial governments across Canada. Most recently, federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland demanded that new spending on social programs come from cuts to other line items or “internal reallocations.” Provincial governments, from the Progressive Conservatives Ontario to the New Democrats British Columbia (BCNDP) have also done all they can to cut funding from anti-poverty programs, in the face of skyrocketing housing prices and runaway inflation. This will only make the situation far worse.
Meanwhile, the war on drugs continues. While the overdose prevention efforts Poilievre has demonized have cost the federal government only $60 million, Canada’s combined police forces already spend $2.3 billion every year cracking down on drug use. For further perspective, the BCNDP government’s last budget spent just $633 million on programs to end homelessness.
Under Poilievre—a man who previously promised to dismantle Canada’s “welfare state,”—this disparity would only become more glaring. But one should have no illusions in the BCNDP, the federal Liberals or other representatives of the status quo.
These governments all accept the capitalist system and therefore their proposals all fall short of tackling this growing problem. While they may want to see the crisis managed, the existence of capitalism means that landlords must be free to evict, bosses must be free to lay off injured workers and profits must be defended.
The capitalists will not risk their profits to properly fund healthcare, employment, and social services. The capitalists also need the police to protect private property and keep the working class and the poor down. Fundamentally this means that while Canada’s politicians may or may not find the overdose crisis personally upsetting, austerity, police terror, and the crisis will continue and the death rate will continue to rise.
Solving the overdose crisis will require a revolution.
A socialist solution to the overdose crisis
Capitalism fails to provide housing, social services, and employment for those in need. Capitalism grinds workers into the ground and makes life not worth living. Capitalists then profit off of our misery by selling us drugs to help us cope with meager existence. To top it all off, capitalism fails to properly fund the health programs to help deal with the myriad of health problems exacerbated by the profiteering of the capitalist class.
Only with a a socialist planned economy would we be able to take the wealth of society which is currently being squandered as profit and wasted on war and police terror—and direct it towards housing, healthcare, education, employment, and anti-poverty initiatives.
Socialism would help those who struggle with addiction take control of their lives by giving them control over the conditions of life. It would free people from the poverty, deprivation, oppression, and hopelessness that pervades capitalist society and leaves people desperate.