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opinion

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks to reporters at Parthenon Market, in Vancouver, on Nov. 9.Marissa Tiel/The Canadian Press

Do you ever feel like everything is broken in Canada? Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre does and suspects many of you do, too.

This was the overarching theme in a five-minute video Mr. Poilievre posted last week, one that included a rather controversial and misguided message on drug policy in this country.

With a tent city in Vancouver as his backdrop, Mr. Poilievre said offering addicts access to a safe supply of illicit drugs was a “failed experiment” brought in by “woke Liberal and NDP governments.” He said if he became prime minister, he would end this policy (although he didn’t say how) and instead put federal dollars toward recovery and treatment.

I want to say here that Mr. Poilievre doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But his harping on about the perils of giving people “taxpayer-funded” drugs is a trope guaranteed to get his conservatively inclined base fired up and might even persuade the odd centrist or two to question the policy as well. They ignore the fact that “safe supply” isn’t really a radical departure from conventional addiction treatments with drugs such as methadone or Suboxone.

Former Harper adviser denounces Pierre Poilievre drug policy unveiled in video

So where to begin with the federal Conservative Leader’s message?

For starters, Mr. Poilievre says there has been a 300-per-cent increase in drug overdose deaths in B.C. since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office in 2015. What he’s trying to do here, of course, is tie Mr. Trudeau to this horrific death tally, which he inflates but is close enough. Blaming the Prime Minister for these deaths is preposterous. As is Mr. Poilievre’s view that safe-consumption sites are also to blame.

Yes, there has been a tragic and well-documented increase in illicit drug deaths in B.C. in the last six to seven years, but virtually none of it is the fault of safe supply operations, which offer people access to drugs that, if purchased on the street, could well contain deadly does of fentanyl – a powerful synthetic drug – or methamphetamines. Since 2017, the sites also helped reverse more than 41,000 overdoses without one death.

An analysis by the BC Coroners Service that looked at illicit drug toxicity deaths between Jan. 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2022, found that no one had died of an overdose at supervised consumption sites and there was “no indication” they were contributing to the rise in narcotic-related fatalities in the province. In fact, 56 per cent of overdose deaths in B.C. this year happened in private residences, the report noted.

So why are so many people dying? It’s pretty simple: the toxic nature of the drugs being sold on the street. There were roughly 200 deaths per year before fentanyl became a common ingredient of street drugs. There were 2,267 last year, and, again, none of them occurred at a safe consumption site. Fentanyl or analogues were detected in less than 5 per cent of illicit drug deaths in 2012. It’s almost 86 per cent now.

In his video, Mr. Poilievre also says that he would bolster staff at our borders to keep ingredients such as fentanyl out of the country. The folks at Canada Border Services Agency must have gotten a kick out of that one. They know that substances such as fentanyl are so powerful that they are often shipped in single envelopes. Good luck checking all those.

Mr. Poilievre points to Alberta as the illicit drug-fighting jurisdiction to be imitated because overdose deaths have fallen. Former premier Jason Kenney came out against supervised injection sites when he was running the show. What Mr. Poilievre doesn’t say is that the Alberta government still supplies thousands of people a month with free doses of opioids to help reduce their drug cravings. And five cities run supervised consumption sites.

The fact is, safe supply is viewed by many in the health care field as an essential intervention to protect people from dying on the streets or in their homes. It’s hoped users can take advantage of the service to stabilize and get further treatment.

No, it’s not perfect. And yes, there are skeptics, including some doctors who aren’t sure it’s such a great idea. But combined with a greater investment in treatment and recovery it can be – and is – a necessary tool in society’s fight against a scourge that is sweeping not just Canada but the world.

Mr. Poilievre says in his video that giving people more drugs at safe supply depots won’t free people from addiction but will “only lead to their ultimate death.”

He couldn’t be more wrong. And his position couldn’t be more dangerous.