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A man stops to read messages attached to shoes hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, Aug. 31, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is “moving forward aggressively” on ensuring a supply of pharmaceutical alternatives to Canada’s toxic street drugs as overdose deaths spike across the country.

But he again side-stepped the issue of decriminalization, even as Canadian police chiefs, the B.C. Premier and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada join those calling for alternatives to criminal penalties for simple possession cases.

“We’re always going to base our approach on science and evidence and understand that the opioid crisis is much more of a health issue than a justice issue, and that’s the lens we’ve taken on it,” Mr. Trudeau told The Early Edition on CBC Radio in Vancouver on Wednesday.

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“The key to decriminalization … is making sure that there is a safer supply for people who are struggling with addictions and that is what we’ve moved forward on without having to take the step of decriminalization. We are moving forward aggressively on ensuring a safer supply to be able to prevent people from having to get these terrible [drugs] fentanyl, carfentanil into their systems.”

Ottawa has financed some pilot projects and removed regulatory barriers to make the alternatives more easily available.

Canada is experiencing unprecedented numbers of overdose deaths this year, with one public-health crisis exacerbated by another. Border closings, disrupted drug supply chains and reduced social services because of the COVID-19 pandemic have added fresh chaos to the overdose crisis.

From January to July, at least 909 people died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. Ontario had 879 confirmed and probable opioid-related deaths from January to May, according to preliminary data.

In Alberta, which has not released any recent data on overdose deaths, one of the country’s busiest supervised consumption sites closed this week after a financial audit prompted the province’s United Conservative Party government to pull its funding. The province has also signalled its intention to cut funding for a two-year injectable opioid treatment program by the end of next March.

Data on medical emergency services related to opioids show that overdoses have spiked in Alberta, with 550 responses in May, compared to 182 each in January and February.

Zoe Dodd, a co-organizer of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said calling substance use a health issue while still criminalizing those who use drugs is window dressing.

“We are asking for [decriminalization] so people are not criminalized for using drugs, so people do not go to jail and come out and overdose and die,” she said.

“We are asking for it so that people will call 911 [when someone overdoses] and not be afraid of going to jail, or be brutalized by police. And we’re asking for it so we can take funds from criminalizing people and invest that into housing, education, support, healing.”

The rollout of B.C.’s safe supply – pharmaceutical substances such as hydromorphone prescribed as an alternative to toxic concoctions purchased on the street – has been beset with hurdles. Many physicians are reluctant to prescribe, in part because of liability concerns, so people who could benefit from these regulated medications can’t get them.

The roadblocks prompted federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu to write last week to provincial and territorial health ministers and regulatory colleges asking them to do all they can to facilitate access to safer alternatives to illicit opioids.

“I encourage you to look at your sphere of influence and work to remove barriers to implementing a safer supply during this unprecedented time,” she wrote.

“I know important measures have been put in place to curtail unnecessary opioid over-prescribing, which are commendable and needed. However, we must balance this objective with the needs of people at a high risk of overdose, by ensuring health professionals feel equipped and supported to prescribe medication for treatment or harm reduction without fear of reprisal.”

Gillian Kolla, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, noted that the federal government has a limited role in safe supply.

“Because the provision of health services is a provincial responsibility, it’s very easy for Trudeau to say we’re moving forward on safe supply, because it comes down to the provinces having to act on safe supply,” Dr. Kolla said.

“And we currently have conservative governments from the B.C. border to the Atlantic ocean that have shown little to no interest whatsoever in a comprehensive response to the overdose crisis.”

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