A former public safety and justice adviser to Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper has condemned Pierre Poilievre’s new video on Vancouver’s toxic drug crisis, describing the current party leader’s opposition to safe supply as unsubstantiated.
“I was really disgusted by it. I honestly was so disturbed to see Pierre Poilievre using people’s really desperate situation here in the city I live in as a backdrop for a political propaganda ad,” said Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, in an interview on Monday.
Mr. Perrin was referring to a post Sunday titled, Everything feels broken, which features Mr. Poilievre criticizing the status quo on dealing with overdose issues – particularly Vancouver’s approach of safe supply, or providing drugs that are not contaminated with toxic opioids, to those grappling with addiction.
“It was a five-minute long diatribe that’s not informed by any research evidence or expertise. It’s just Mr. Poilievre rehashing Conservative, war-on-drugs tropes that have been long since discredited and have been found to be not only ineffective but costly and deadly.”
According to a report this month from BC Coroners Service, at least 171 people died from toxic drugs in September, amounting to 1,644 fatalities thus far this year. That monthly figure is an 8-per-cent increase over the number of deaths in September, 2021.
Prior to working for Mr. Harper from 2012 to 2013, Mr. Perrin was a law clerk at Canada’s Supreme Court. He now teaches criminal and international law, and is the author of several books, including Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis, published in 2020.
He also took issue with Mr. Poilievre posting the footage without meeting the media to talk about his policy.
“Politicians should be courageous enough to answer questions when they are going to propose that they have got solutions to a problem as complex and diverse as the opioid crisis instead of just posting a video on their social-media channels and just walking away without being responsible for what they said.”
Meanwhile, British Columbia’s Mental Health and Addictions Minister accused Mr. Poilievre of spreading a “dangerous” message with his video.
In a statement, Sheila Malcolmson cited the finding from the recent BC Coroner’s Service that the vast majority of toxic drug deaths in the province are due to people using illicit substances alone.
“People hide their drug use due to stigma and shame – which is why the message the leader of the Federal Conservative party is perpetuating is dangerous,” Ms. Malcolmson said.
“One of the most important ways to save lives from toxic drugs is to separate people from toxic drugs – that’s why B.C. prescribes safer supply and is the first province in Canada to do this. It’s toxic, illicit drugs that are killing people – not the province’s prescribed safer supply program.”
Mr. Poilievre’s video features him sitting on a downtown Vancouver beach with a tent community behind him.
“In that tent city are people hopelessly addicted to drugs, putting poisons in their bodies,” he says.
As the footage shifts to images of the Downtown Eastside, Mr. Poilievre cites escalating overdose deaths in the province, saying they have soared since Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister in 2015.
He calls the addictions part of a “failed experiment,” describing “a deliberate policy by woke Liberal and NDP governments to provide taxpayer-funded drugs, flood our street with easy access to these poisons.”
He says Conservatives support increasing resources on Canada’s borders to keep precursor ingredients used to make the drugs out of the country, as well as bringing in tougher laws for violent reoffenders and criminal actors preying on those with addiction issues. He adds that he opposes “the so-called and ironically named” safe-supply approach: “There is no safe supply of these drugs.”
Mr. Perrin criticized Mr. Poilievre’s suggestion that the crisis is caused by taxpayer-supported drugs as false, attributing the problem instead to street drugs contaminated with the potent opioids fentanyl and carfentanyl.
“There is no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths,” Mr. Perrin said, citing the recent BC Coroners Service report.
“Safer supply has been tested and found to be beneficial for people who have been unable to have treatment for whatever reason, and are long-term substance-abuse users. We’re talking about essentially substituting a contaminated street drug with a drug that has known contents and potency to help people stay alive, first of all, and also to be able to stabilize.”
B.C. introduced prescribed safer supply in May, 2020 and expanded it in July, 2021 – with more than 14,000 people from March 2020 to June, 2022 prescribed safer supply medications, include opioids, stimulants and benzodiazepines, and more than 10,000 of those prescribed an opioid, according to a statement from Ms. Malcolmson’s ministry.
Carolyn Bennett, the federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister said in a statement that there’s a need for a multi-faceted approach to the toxic drug crisis that uses prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement. Safer supply, she said, can reduce hospitalizations, prevent ER visits and save lives.
“The Harper government removed the harm reduction pillar based upon ideology instead of science. We are now continuing to work hard to save lives after those failed policies. Because there is no recovery model for people who are dead. Instead, Mr. Poilievre wants to take Canada back to them,” Ms. Bennett said.