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A safe needle disposal site is attached to a washroom at Oakland's Park in Victoria, B.C., on Jan. 14, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

On a Friday afternoon, two days before the start of the election campaign, the federal government released a couple of expert reports from a task force on substance use. If the timing was designed to bury the documents, it worked. There was no news coverage.

The panel called for an overhaul of Canada’s drugs strategy. They unanimously backed decriminalization of small amounts of drugs. They said expansion of a safer supply of drugs, a regulated alternative to toxic street drugs, should be “an urgent priority.” They proposed a broad and connected focus on a full set of strategies, from harm reduction to treatment and recovery.

Why consider such radical ideas? Because Canada is suffering from an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths. From 2016 to 2020, overdoses killed almost 22,000 Canadians. Last year saw record deaths; 2021 is on track to be worse – deaths are up more than 30 per cent in British Columbia; roughly 40 per cent in Alberta; and almost 60 per cent in Ontario.

Unlike the coronavirus pandemic, the overdose epidemic hasn’t sparked the same all-hands-on-deck approach from all levels of government. This is a largely hidden public-health crisis that doesn’t threaten everyone equally; many upper-middle class Canadians barely know it exists. As a result, government responses have tended to be tentative. Some provinces haven’t done much at all.

The big exception is British Columbia. The province, home to a large and persistent cycle of addictions and deaths, has been pushed into becoming a pioneer in harm reduction, starting with overdose prevention sites and, more recently, a foray into a safer supply. Vancouver is in talks with Ottawa for decriminalization within city limits – a strategy to focus on addiction as a health issue, not one of criminal justice.

The federal Liberals, long cautious, have also begun to move. They loosened federal rules to create options for safer supply, though using the new rules is up to each province. Safer supply aims to get at the main cause of overdose deaths, namely toxic doses of street fentanyl that kill people. Under the best of circumstances, recovery from addiction is far from a sure thing – but once an addicted person is dead, the success rate of treatment is guaranteed to be 0 per cent, 100 per cent of time.

The Conservatives, to their credit, have evolved on this issue. In the 2015 election, their platform’s only reference to the subject warned against overdose prevention sites putting neighbourhoods and children in peril. In 2019, the party ran ads accusing the Liberals of planning to legalize hard drugs.

This time, both tone and approach are different. Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives now recognize addiction as a health issue. But while the platform says people using drugs shouldn’t fear arrest, the party remains doubtful of decriminalization. Mr. O’Toole instead supports judicial discretion – which became federal policy last year. The party is also skeptical of safer supply. The Conservatives’ wariness of these important policies is out of line with mainstream groups such as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Conservatives focus on treatment and recovery. They promise $325-million to establish 1,000 drug treatment beds. It’s good the party is no longer fighting against harm reduction – the Harper government battled overdose prevention sites in court. But opioids addiction is very difficult to kick, and reducing its harms demands more than just a lot of treatment facilities, however needed they are.

In the 2019 election, the Liberals pledged $700-million for drug treatment and combatting addiction, but their budgets haven’t delivered. The party is slowly opening up to decriminalization and safer supply, after years of fearing backlash from Conservative attacks. When the expert reports landed, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the findings would “inform our next steps in drug policy.”

The national debate on the overdose epidemic has evolved beyond scaremongering. This is progress. It was only last summer that voices such as the Chiefs of Police helped shift the conversation. The Conservatives may be late in acknowledging Canada’s other public-health crisis, but their change of heart – similar to the party’s cautious steps on climate policy – could allow the national discussion to move on to debating the best solutions, rather than arguing over whether there’s even a problem.

Canada has a template of what to do next. It was laid out, clearly, two days before the election was called.

Editor’s note: The increase in overdose deaths in B.C. in 2021 was adjusted online on Aug. 31 to reflect new provincial data released that day.

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