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Advocates hope rookie minister acts quickly to tackle a wave of overdose deaths

Ya’ara Saks, Canada’s new minister of mental health and addictions, inherits a complex portfolio and an opioid crisis that has only gotten worse in almost every year since 2016.

Advocates and addictions experts say they would like to see the new minister take a holistic approach to the crisis and act swiftly to champion and expand harm reduction policies.

More than 36,000 people in Canada died of opioid overdoses between 2016 and 2022 — roughly 20 people per day in 2022 alone.

Saks is a relatively new MP — she was elected in a 2020 by-election. She’s taking over a relatively new file that was created in 2021. This is her first ministerial position.

Saks said she was “honoured” to be appointed minister and vowed to tackle the crisis.

“We will use every tool at our disposal to work with our partners to deliver services when and where they are needed to end this crisis,” she said, in a statement to CBC.

Dr. Paxton Bach, an addictions specialist and co-medical director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), said he hopes to Saks will be a “strong and outspoken advocate for the type of system change that we need in order to turn the tide.” 

While Bach says some progress has been made, more needs to be done at every level of government.

“Collectively, we are all clearly failing. We are failing because the numbers continue to get worse,” he said. He called on Saks to bring various levels of government and community groups together to address the crisis.

A layout of photos of people on a table.
Pictures of people who died of drug overdoses are displayed during a Moms Stop The Harm memorial on the seventh anniversary of the opioid public health emergency in Vancouver, British Columbia on Friday, April 14, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In January, the B.C. government was granted an exemption from Ottawa allowing it to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs for a three-year period. The aim of the pilot project is to reduce drug-related arrests and direct people toward health supports.

The exemption “is a first step, but the fact that you can be criminalized elsewhere in the country … makes no sense to me,” said Janet Butler McPhee, co-executive director of the HIV Legal Network.

Toronto made a similar request to decriminalize simple possession in January 2022; it has yet to be approved. In May, the city revised its request and asked for a model that goes further than the one in B.C.

Saks will now be responsible for overseeing Toronto’s request — and possibly others. A briefing note prepared for the previous minister last year suggests another 55 municipalities have expressed interest in decriminalization.

Butler-McPhee says that while she hopes to see decriminalization extended to other jurisdictions, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

“We need someone who understands that it’s not going to be just one magic silver bullet,” she said. “It’s a whole suite of things that need to happen and those things need to happen quickly.”

Budget set aside millions to address crisis

Advocates have been pushing for an expansion of harm-reduction projects such as safe supply and supervised consumption sites.

The spring federal budget committed nearly $360 million over the next five years to addressing the opioid crisis — including $144 million for community-led projects such as safe consumption sites and safe supply programs. Another $4.6 million is earmarked for Health Canada to “streamline” the authorization of new safe consumption and drug-checking sites.

Safe supply programs are meant to offer people who use drugs an alternative to toxic street products which can be laced with deadly opioids such as fentanyl. Of the more than 7,300 overdose deaths that happened last year, 81 per cent involved fentanyl, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

A man in a grey suit stands at a podium.
Addictions medicine specialist Dr. Paxton Bach: ‘Collectively, we are all clearly failing.’ (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Guy Felicella, a peer clinical adviser for the BCCSU, says he would like to see new safe supply programs that are less bureaucratic and allow people access without a prescription.

“We can’t prescribe our way out of this crisis,” he said. “We need another pathway outside of the medical system.”

Petra Schulz, co-founder of the advocacy group Moms Stop The Harm, agrees with Felicella.

“We need programs that are outside the medicalized system. So non-medical safe supply through compassion clubs or other models,” she said.

A politician gestures to his left while speaking in a legislature.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre rises during question period on June 16, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Saks’s appointment comes as the Conservatives have been attacking the federal Liberals’ response to overdose deaths.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has claimed safe supply and consumption policies only contribute to the crisis. In May, he put forward a motion calling on the government to halt all programs providing non-toxic drugs to those suffering from addictions and to instead redirect funding to treatment services.

Bach says that while more money should be invested in treatment, it shouldn’t be viewed as a trade-off with harm reduction.

“If we’re having that debate, then we’ve already lost. We’re already off course,” he said.

“We must invest in this entire spectrum of care for people who are using substances. It’s critical. Anything else, any other discussion is a distraction from the system that we need to be building.”

Saks says she intends to work across party lines to address the crisis.

“I firmly believe this issue is non-partisan and I intend to build bridges to help Canadians,” she said in a statement.

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