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British Columbia’s premier is apologizing for comments he made Thursday comparing the COVID-19 pandemic to the province’s ongoing opioid crisis.

B.C. set a new record of 175 overdose deaths in June, surpassing the record just set in May and about 5,000 people have died since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016.

Advocates have questioned whether the opioid crisis has been overshadowed by the pandemic, despite occurring for longer and with a higher death toll.

John Horgan told reporters Friday that he “mischaracterized” the challenges of addiction.

He says he knows addictions come from a place of despair and trauma and he regrets that while trying to get a point across about two completely different issues he spoke longer than he should have.

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On Thursday, he told reporters that drug users initially make the choice to use and then they become dependent.

“That’s not my point of view. I mischaracterized the situation and I regret that very much.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix defended Horgan, saying the premier has been a staunch advocate for those struggling with addiction.

Horgan said Thursday that he supported Canada’s police chiefs suggestion that small amounts of drugs should be decriminalized. He said the federal government needed to get behind a national plan.

“If you’re addicted, you’re not a criminal,” Horgan said.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has also called for the decriminalization of people who possess small amounts of drugs, said there are many reasons why people use drugs.

“Nobody grows up thinking ‘I want to be addicted to substances, I want to have a substance use disorder, I want to have this controlling my life,’ ” she said.

The B.C. Liberal critic for mental health and addictions said the comments are some of the most upsetting she’s heard and called on Judy Darcy, the minister of mental health and addictions, to disavow them.

“When a premier says that … addiction is a choice, I think all of the people that do suffer from mental health and addictions would consider that not just inappropriate but insulting and hurtful,” Jane Thornthwaite said in an interview.

She also called on Horgan to issue a stronger apology to drug users and their family members for his comments.

Karen Ward, a long-time advocate and emergency response communications co-ordinator with the City of Vancouver said Horgan’s comments take several steps backward in the understanding of substance use.

“People are aware that they’re not in the best place,” she said. “They’re just not doing great, they’ve run out of options.”

Ward says Horgan’s comments show he needs to engage more with the drug user community to better understand their situation.

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