Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he is trying to keep an open mind on options for dealing with the opioid overdose crisis in British Columbia, but is not backing off key tenets on harm reduction his party pushed in government.
That includes reservations about supervised-injection sites. In an interview Wednesday ahead of a visit later this month to the Lower Mainland, Mr. Scheer also said prosecuting drug users might steer them into rehabilitation programs that would reduce the risk of overdoses.
"As I have been told by several representatives of the law-enforcement community, often the ability to prosecute for these types of heavier drugs is a way to get people in the door to rehabilitation services," he said, rejecting the idea of decriminalizing drugs beyond marijuana.
"There's interaction with the legal system that can compel those early steps."
Still, he said being leader of the Conservatives, whose record in government included objections in the courts to the operation of the Insite supervised-injection site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, has not held him back from considering varied ideas.
"I don't feel constrained at all. I feel the Conservative Party has been a voice for those who have legitimate concerns around what the consequences of some of the policies have created. It's necessary to have that side of the conversation," Mr. Scheer said.
Amid a major crisis in British Columbia that has prompted the province to declare a state of emergency, Mr. Scheer said he is looking for proposals from Vancouver on how to proceed. He will be in the Vancouver region for a two-day visit in mid-November, his second since becoming party leader.
Although he has been in his position since May, Mr. Scheer said he is still "in the listening phase of my leadership" when it comes to looking for ideas worth supporting.
Last month, fatal overdoses in British Columbia surpassed 1,000 a year for the first time. From January through August, at least 1,013 people died of illicit drug overdoses – more than 2016's year-end total of 982. The projected 2017 total of 1,500 is about seven times the average in the 2000s.
A situation in the Fraser Valley city of Abbotsford last week underlined the continuing crisis. There were five overdose deaths over the course of nine hours last Friday.
Asked his opinion on supervised-injection sites, Mr. Scheer said Conservatives are supportive of court rulings backing these sites, but want to make sure community concerns are heard.
"My message to people in British Columbia and Vancouver is a sincere desire to find policy that works, balancing the legitimate and proper concerns of families and individuals who have real concerns about [supervised-injection sites] in their community with the need to save lives, the recognition that addicts are in a type of place where they will do what they can to get their hands on narcotics and take them."
The Conservative Leader said he has never visited a supervised-injection site to get a first-hand sense of how they work, but wouldn't rule it out. "As someone who believes in making decisions based on evidence, I would have no problem with going to see what goes on there," he said. "That's an interesting thought."
Gavin Wilson, a Vancouver Coastal Health spokesman, said they would welcome an Insite visit by Mr. Scheer, who would follow a long list of politicians who have come by. The health authority funds Insite and operates it with the PHS Community Services Society.
"It is instructive to get a first-hand look at how harm reduction works in practice. But we would also encourage taking a broader look at the services and programs we offer to those who are addicted to drugs. Insite is just part of the spectrum of services we provide," Mr. Wilson said in a statement.
In response to the overdose crisis, B.C. has opened more than 20 sites where people can use drugs.