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People hold a banner during a march to remember those who died during the overdose crisis and to call for a safe supply of illicit drugs on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Aug. 31, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s chief coroner defended the province’s policy of providing safe narcotics to drug users, even as Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his fellow Tory MPs assailed the practice Thursday during an extended debate on Parliament Hill.

“Safer-supply prescribing, and the decriminalization of small amounts of some drugs for personal use, are recent health-centred approaches to a complex health challenge,” the coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said in a statement on Thursday, which she released alongside the latest numbers from her office on deaths linked to drug overdoses in the province.

In an apparent reference to media reports that Mr. Poilievre has cited to bolster his arguments, Ms. Lapointe wrote, “Anonymous allegations and second-hand anecdotes suggesting that these new initiatives are somehow responsible for the crisis our province has been experiencing since 2016 are not only harmful, they are simply wrong.”

The crisis she was referring to is the proliferation of toxic street drugs. Ms. Lapointe’s office and the province announced that these substances had claimed 814 lives in B.C. in the first four months of 2023, with 6.9 lives lost per day in April.

In total, 12,046 people have died in B.C. as a result of toxic, unregulated drugs since the province first declared a public-health emergency in 2016, according to the coroner’s office.

Ms. Lapointe said poisoning from non-prescribed, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl is killing people on “an unprecedented scale.” B.C.’s “safer-supply” program attempts to reduce the harms caused by this and other illicit drugs by providing users with pharmaceutical-grade alternatives that are less likely to endanger their lives. Earlier this year, the province decriminalized simple drug possession.

In Ottawa, Mr. Poilievre made the case for the federal government to change course on its harm-reduction commitments. His Conservatives had put forward an opposition day motion calling on the government to reverse its “deadly policies” and redirect money away from taxpayer-funded programs that provide users with drugs. The Conservatives are proposing redirecting that funding to addiction, treatment and recovery programs. A vote on the motion is expected next week.

Vernon White: In vilifying safe supply, Pierre Poilievre has picked the wrong target

In the Commons, Mr. Poilievre pointedly referred to Vancouver, where he said, “all three levels of government have endorsed the so-called ‘safe supply’ and decriminalization of hard drugs.”

He added, “We were told that giving out and decriminalizing hard drugs would reduce drug overdoses. These so-called experts are typically pie-in-the-sky theorists with no experience getting people off drugs, or they are members of the misery industry – those paid activists and public-health bureaucrats whose jobs depend on the crisis continuing.”

Conservative health critic Stephen Ellis, a Nova Scotia physician, accused the federal government of wanting to prolong the challenges facing drug addicts. “This government is not offering them anything except more drugs to perpetuate their zombie-like state. This is unacceptable in Canada,” he told the Commons.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett told the Commons Mr. Ellis’s remarks stigmatized drug users.

She noted that the BC Coroners Service has said safe supply can protect users from the poisoned illicit supply, and that there is no indication it is contributing to drug deaths.

New Democrat Alistair MacGregor, the MP for the Vancouver Island riding of Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, said he found terms such as “misery industry” insulting.

“Central in today’s debate is this trauma-informed approach of meeting people where they are at, and keeping people alive long enough so that they can come into contact with the services, and help, and treatment, eventually down the line, that will actually help them,” he said.

B.C. Premier David Eby, speaking at an unrelated event in Langley, B.C., told reporters his government is going to continue evaluating the safer-supply program, to ensure it is making communities safer and keeping people alive so they can get into treatment.

“The safe-supply work is supported by both parties in the legislature – the Official Opposition, as well as the government, the chiefs of police across the province, federal government – and the reason for that is the depth of the challenge that we face,” he said.

Ms. Lapointe’s office said in a statement that safe supply is a means of separating people from the profit-driven, unregulated black market for drugs.

She said B.C.’s toxic drug crisis started with the introduction of illicit fentanyl to the street drug market in 2013, and that fentanyl has driven the province’s emergency ever since.

“Safer-supply prescribing is being closely monitored, and there are no indications that diversion is leading to increased incidence of opioid use disorder. There is also no evidence that prescribed safer supply is causing drug toxicity deaths,” she said.

Nik Nanos, the chief data scientist at polling company Nanos Research, said in a statement that Mr. Poilievre’s policy on harm reduction is part of his broader “Canada is broken” narrative, which holds that Liberal policies are not working.

“He is looking to tap into and stoke a time-for-change movement, to help him oust the government. It allows him to tap into voters beyond his Conservative base, who might think things are not working and Canada needs change,” Mr. Nanos said.

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