National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Donna May says she'll no longer tolerate a nod or weepy eyes from politicians over the opioid epidemic — it's claimed the lives of too many people she loves.

May wants action in the form of drug decriminalization and she's far from alone in her plea.

The death of May's 55-year-old brother a year ago in Bolton, Ont., broke her emotionally.

"We have the ability to stop these deaths and we are stepping back from doing what is right," she says.

"I lost my brother just a year ago, even after losing my daughter and being able to say to him, 'Look it, all these drugs are poison.'"

May has spent years advocating with mumsDU — "moms united and mandated to saving the lives of Drug Users" — after the death of her 34-year-old daughter Jacey in 2012.

Jacey was a mother of three who developed a fentanyl addiction and ran afoul of the law. She was introduced to opioids through a prescription after she was injured falling down a flight of stairs onto a concrete basement floor.

Seven years after her death, government interventions on the opioid crisis have not prevented thousands more, May says.

"I'm afraid unless we do something that's effective and immediate, we are going to see a huge increase in the overdose crisis," she says. "It hasn't ended. It hasn't even subsided. It is just growing at exponential rates across Canada."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to pursue decriminalization, even though he's faced pressure from grassroots Liberal party members and his own caucus.

Last April, at a convention in Halifax, the Liberal rank and file passed a non-binding resolution on decriminalizing simple possession and consumption of all illicit drugs.

Trudeau shot the idea down. "On that particular issue, as I've said, it's not part of our plans," he said.

During the first nine months of last year, the Public Health Agency reported 3,286 Canadians lost their lives to apparent opioid-related overdoses, bringing the total to more than 10,300 between January 2016 and September 2018.

Fentanyl and other fentanyl-related substances continue to be a major driver of this crisis, the agency added.

In response to the staggering death toll, B.C.'s chief public-health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recently called for B.C. to decriminalize the possession of controlled substances for personal use, in a 50-page report titled "Stopping the Harm."

She said her province can't wait for Ottawa to act, adding that decriminalizing the possession of even hard drugs is an important step to "stem the tide of unprecedented deaths."

"I have called on the federal government to move toward regulating access to currently controlled drugs, with a focus on reducing harm associated with the use of those substances, as well as the harms associated with the current prohibition-based regulatory regime and its application," she said.

"But in the context of the continuing overdose crisis that is affecting families and communities across B.C., the province cannot wait for action at the federal level. Immediate provincial action is warranted, and I recommend that the Province of B.C. urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use."

There is widespread global recognition that the war on drugs and the resulting criminalization and stigmatization of people who use them has not reduced drug use but instead has increased health harms, the report added.

The federal NDP has also called for decriminalization, along with a growing number of health experts.

"I certainly think that it can begin a discussion in this country about where we are going and are we on the right track as it relates to drugs, mental health and addictions," Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull, a former president of the Canadian Medical Association and the previous chief of staff at the Ottawa Hospital, said in a recent interview. A major part of his work is tending to the medical needs of homeless and street-involved people in Ottawa.

"Can we continue to put all these people in our jails or shouldn't we try and deal with this as a problem of health rather than justice?"

For her part, Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam is careful to say the federal government is not prepared to decriminalize illicit street drugs "as it stands."

A major factor in rising overdose numbers is high-potency fentanyl and carfentanil being passed off as lower-strength opioids in street drugs. The more powerful drugs are easier to transport and sell but when users don't know the potency of the substances they're taking, overdoses are a big risk.

"We can do much more, I think, in looking at what are the different ways that we can provide people who are using drugs a 'safer alternative,' " Tam says.

Health Canada is funding some pilot projects, Tam says, such as providing pharmaceutical-grade hydromorphone to people who are using street drugs "in an attempt to get them away from the toxic supply."

The department should be pursuing a safer supply on a broad basis rather than in scattered pilots, May says, adding she sees decriminalization as the "only next step."

Trudeau's resistance to it amounts to a "huge disappointment", she said.

"He gives us his pat answers without any explanation as to why he stands behind these answers and they just don't make sense," she says.

"If you take all the reasoning behind why he's legalized cannabis and you apply it — all those reasons to the opiate crisis, there's a clear direction that he should be going in the decriminalization (route)."

—with files from Andy Blatchford

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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