July 24, 2020
The Honourable Patty Hadju, Minister of Health
The Honourable Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety
OPEN LETTER RE: SAFE SUPPLY AND DECRIMINALIZATION TO STOP OVERDOSE DEATHS
We write you today out of grave concern for the lives of people in our communities.
As you may know, the BC Coroner reported that 175 British Columbians lost their lives to poisoning by accidental overdose from toxic illicit drugs in June 2020. This is more than any previous month on record and follows a similar record-setting death rate in May. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe reported that toxicology testing data also suggests an increase in the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations since April of this year. This lends weight to anecdotal reports from front-line workers and peers who have reported that, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disruptions in illicit drug supply seem to have resulted in ever more products being sold that contain toxic levels of fentanyl, carfentanil and benzodiazepines.
Overdose prevention workers and peers now routinely issue alerts about severely toxic drugs circulating. People are dying, not just in our community, but across this country. It must stop.
This crisis of overdose deaths is not new, for as you know we have been calling on your government for years now to declare the overdose crisis a national health emergency and to treat substance misuse as a health matter. That means we must stop criminalizing drug users. We have raised this in Question Period, in letters, in take-note debates, and in the public eye. We have attended marches, rallies and memorials, hosted town halls, and met with a long list of advocates, health experts and organizations, who have all repeated the same call for action.
The call to decriminalize the possession of controlled substances for personal use is based on the evidence of health professionals. In a press release, Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC's Medial Health Officer stated: "If we're going to turn the corner on this complex crisis, we need to find ways to provide safer alternatives to the unregulated and highly toxic drug supply and to end the stigma associated with criminalization of people who use drugs." She further stated that: "We need options to provide people at risk of overdose with low-barrier access to a regulated supply of opioids, and we need to connect people who use drugs with the supports they need rather than sending them to the criminal justice system."
This sentiment is further echoed by many health experts, including Dr. Perry Kendall of the BC Centre on Substance Use and Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority. Adding to the chorus of health experts are high-profile stakeholders ranging from Chief Constable Adam Palmer of the Vancouver Police Department, to BC Premier John Horgan, to the editorial board of the Toronto Star, and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, all of whom have stated publicly that decriminalization of simple possession is necessary to battle substance use and addiction.
Ministers, the experiences of drug user advocates, peers and overdose prevention workers, and the testaments from friends and family who have suffered the heartbreaking loss of their loved ones to a toxic drug supply show that people are desperate for your government to find the courage to act. As Guy Felicella of the Overdose Emergency Response Centre said in a recent press release, “The waiting is killing people.”
As you are aware, the federal NDP feels strongly that immediate action must be taken, specifically decriminalization of substance use, medical provision of a safe supply and comprehensive treatment of drug use and addiction as health, not criminal or moral, issues. Too many lives have already been lost. Though we constantly hear your government claim to favour these principles, you continue to refuse to amend federal legislation like the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to put your words into action. Once again, we call on you to do so, with urgency.
As an interim measure, we urge that you implement a nation-wide exemption, under s. 56 of the CDSA, to the prohibition on simple possession in s. 4. This action could be undertaken within the existing legislative framework. In tandem with this measure, we further urge that you provide ready access to pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply across the country. The province of British Columbia has already begun a safe supply pilot project in the midst of the pandemic, and there are other jurisdictions that have seen great success in moving away from a justice-based approach to a health- based approach.
Acting immediately on these two measures is well within your power, and it will save lives. There is no moral reason and no excuse to allow the death toll to escalate for one day longer. We stand ready to work with you to make this a reality in our communities.
MP for Vancouver Kingsway NDP Health Critic
MP for Vancouver East NDP Deputy Heath Critic
Cc: The Honourable Chrystia Freeland
Deputy Prime Minister