Vernon White is a former senator, police chief and assistant commissioner with the RCMP, and a current public-safety specialist for Secapp.
In one of his most talked-about YouTube videos to date, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre sits near a tented encampment on a beach in Vancouver and states that the opioid crisis is the result of “a deliberate policy by woke Liberal and NDP governments to provide taxpayer-funded drugs – to flood our streets with easy access to these poisons.”
Criticism of Mr. Poilievre’s video was swift, but last month he sadly chose to double down on his stance, arguing that a safer supply of drugs is “perpetuating indefinitely” the addictions of those struggling with substance abuse.
The use of supervised consumption sites has been a controversial practice since their advent in Vancouver, some 20 years ago. While these sites had the support of local politicians at the time, many challenges had to be overcome in introducing the practice of illegal-drug use in government-funded facilities.
More than a decade after their introduction in British Columbia, the Stephen Harper-led Conservative federal government tried to curtail the growth of supervised-consumption sites in Canada by introducing their Respect for Communities legislation in 2013. “Our Government believes that creating a location for sanctioned use of drugs obtained from illicit sources has the potential for great harm in a community,” an official statement said at the time. “Substances obtained from illegal sources affect public safety and may fuel organized crime, and exemptions for illicit substances must be carefully assessed.”
In 2017, the House of Commons passed Bill C-37 (an amendment to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act), which streamlined the application process for communities to establish their own supervised consumption sites. As a sitting senator at the time, I brought forward an amendment that would require all safe-consumption sites to provide access to replacement-drug therapy, which could include a safe supply. The Senate agreed with this amendment, as it recognized the reality that the removal of street drugs (opioids in particular, which kill more than 20 people a day in Canada), would be very important in saving lives and removing the criminal element from the dangerous trade of street-manufactured opioids. At the same time, providing replacement drugs would limit the number of opioid deaths.
The Conservative Party also supported my amendment, and its then-health critic, Dr. Colin Carrie, spoke in support of replacement-drug therapy: “When addicts present at clinics asking for help, they come in with vials of poison, basically, made up in a drug dealer’s basement. They are not safe. They are dangerous. This amendment would allow addicts to be offered a pharmaceutical-grade option instead of forcing them to use these dangerous drugs.” Dr. Carrie cited the example of Switzerland, where safe-supply policies resulted in less criminal activity and an increase in people entering treatment for addiction, ultimately with fewer deaths.
Dr. Carrie and the Senate got it right in 2017, but sadly the federal government removed the amendment as it was passed in the Senate, replacing the language stating that consumption sites “must” provide replacement-drug therapy with the words “may provide.” It was short-sighted as this would have forced safe-consumption sites to engage in the practice, and it would have surely saved lives.
As the former chief of police for Ottawa, I have seen first-hand the positive effect that a safer supply can have on an individual’s life. We can even look at the program operating right now in Ottawa, where Mr. Poilievre is currently the sitting MP. The patrons of supervised consumption sites are not only given the chance to survive their addictions, but when under the care of a medical professional instead of a street dealer, they have a chance to live long enough to be offered alternative paths, which they often choose to take.
The fact that Mr. Poilievre misses this point entirely is disappointing, as his counterparts in the House of Commons and the Senate have understood the importance of removing street-manufactured opioids from the sites. In fact, the Canadian Police Association and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have both supported the use of replacement drugs. Using a safe supply to save lives is key to what we should all be doing – taking care of some of our most vulnerable citizens. I have never met a drug addict who wanted to be addicted, living on the streets, committing crimes to purchase drugs – and yet there are thousands of Canadians who are doing just that. It is easy for Mr. Poilievre to look at this in simple terms, but it is anything but.
I would suggest Mr. Poilievre spend a couple of days in one or a few of these facilities – maybe then he can contribute to an educated discussion on the topic.