Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is rejecting recommendations from British Columbia's top health officials to widen the scope of his government's decriminalization agenda beyond marijuana to help stem the country's growing opioid crisis.
Mr. Trudeau will meet Friday with health experts in Vancouver to discuss Canada's response to the rising toll of overdose deaths, the latest in a series of meetings where he has engaged with British Columbians on the front lines of the deadly opioid battle.
The Prime Minister quietly met with first responders in the Downtown Eastside last December. At that time, British Columbia was tallying its worst year for drug overdoses and in January, his government promised $10-million in additional health funding for B.C. to boost its response to a fentanyl-fuelled epidemic.
Top health officials in British Columbia are calling for a significant change to Canada's existing drug policy to ensure people do not face criminal charges for using illicit drugs. But Mr. Trudeau said that, while he hopes to introduce legislation before the summer to legalize marijuana, he is not prepared to decriminalize other illicit drugs.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who is on the front lines," he said. "I always listen very carefully to what they have to say. But at the same time, I can absolutely confirm that we are moving forward on a framework to regulate and control marijuana to protect our kids and keep our communities safer from organized crime, and we are not planning on including any other illicit substances in the movement toward legalizing, controlling and regulating."
B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake has offered tacit support for decriminalization: "We have recognized over the years that the war on drugs has largely been a failure," he said last spring. "Let's put a public health lens on this."
However, Mr. Trudeau said that is a step he's not prepared to take.
The Prime Minister said those people he spoke with on the front lines also want more resources to expand access to supervised injection sites – something he said he'd like to see funded by the province.
"When I sat down with the people in the [Downtown Eastside] in December, they highlighted there is a challenge around opening hours for safe consumption sites and they would like to be able to extend those hours – and they need money to do that," he said.
"We're not going to tell B.C. how to spend money on a health crisis, it's their jurisdiction, but certainly we hope the $10-million we are sending to B.C. will allow for an improved response to this ongoing crisis."
The province has not yet allocated the money from Ottawa; it has identified a number of priority areas that include more supervised injection sites but also more policing, more access to opioid substitution treatment, and more support for first responders and the BC Coroners Service.
The Prime Minister was set to meet on Thursday evening with B.C. Premier Christy Clark, and the agenda included the joint response to the spike in overdose deaths.
British Columbia has been at the forefront of the opioid crisis that is now evident in communities across the country.
B.C. recorded 922 deaths from drug overdoses last year. Many of those deaths have been attributed to the rise of powerful synthetic opioids including fentanyl and carfentanil. Even after B.C. declared a state of emergency last spring and opened up access to Nalaxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, the death toll has been on the rise. In January, there were 116 apparent overdose deaths from illicit drugs.
Mr. Trudeau said the federal government will continue to work with B.C. to confront the rising toll of drug deaths, but he said the regulation of marijuana stems from a different challenge.
He said the goal of decriminalization of pot is designed to divert "billions of dollars" in revenue away from criminal organizations, while at the same time making it harder for youth to purchase drugs.
"It's easier to buy a joint for a teenager than it is to buy a bottle of beer. That's not right," Mr. Trudeau told reporters. "We know by controlling and regulating we are going to make it more difficult for young people to access marijuana."