Erin O’Toole says a Conservative federal government would put recovering from addiction at the centre of a $1.3-billion strategy to deal with the opioid crisis, promising to create residential treatment beds and assist First Nations communities with high needs for addictions support.
The Conservatives say the current federal strategy is focused on harm-reduction policies such as supervised consumption sites, but those cannot on their own break the cycle of addiction.
“What I’ve announced today is a plan to help, a plan to tackle the opioid crisis, at last show federal leadership as part of a combined effort,” Mr. O’Toole said during a campaign stop at an addiction-treatment centre in New Westminster, B.C., just southeast of Vancouver.
In background notes released with Mr. O’Toole’s announcement, the Conservatives say that revisions to the federal policy framework are needed “to make recovery its overarching goal. This will ensure that all government action and funding related to addictions strengthens pathways to recovery. … A recovery approach builds on harm-reduction approaches.”
The Conservatives pledge spending $325-million over three years to create 1,000 residential drug-treatment beds and build 50 community centres across Canada.
The plan also includes $1-billion over five years to boost funding for Indigenous mental health and drug-treatment programs. And there’s a commitment to work with the provinces to provide more Naloxone kits, used to reverse opioid overdoses, though specific numbers are not provided.
The proposals were included in a platform released by the Conservative Party on the second day of the election campaign, although they were not fully costed. The party has submitted its platform to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and is awaiting his assessment of all of their pledges, including those discussed on Sunday.
Mr. O’Toole, at the end of a campaign swing that has taken him to each Western province since Thursday, indicated some flexibility on issues such as supervised-injection sites and decriminalization.
He said a Conservative government would not move to block Health Canada approvals for supervised-injection sites.
“We want recovery and treatment to also be at the core of a national approach that recognizes harm reduction, recognizes compassion within our criminal-justice system for people with addiction while making sure recovery and wellness is there,” he told the news conference.
At least 5,233 people died from opioid-related toxicity last year, making it the deadliest year since national surveillance began in 2016, with months worth of data still to be counted.
Thierry Bélair, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party, said the Conservative record includes banning supervised-consumption sites and fighting them in court. “We will continue to support people facing addiction and provide safe and supervised alternatives,” he said.
“We believe in an approach informed by public-health experts – not ideology.”
Conservative premiers in Alberta and Ontario have been steadfastly opposed to the creation of supervised-consumption sites similar to one in Vancouver that has been open since 2003. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said he doesn’t believe they work and “helping addicts inject poison into their bodies is not a long-term solution.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said he’s “dead against” such sites. Last week, two non-profit societies filed a lawsuit against the Alberta government alleging its rules governing supervised drug-use sites will have life-and-death impacts.
On decriminalization, Mr. O’Toole said, “We would like to see more judicial discretion here, the treatment options for people with an addiction and not have them held back in their recovery and future employment by criminal sanction and I have a lot of faith that the court can balance off these factors.”
Although Justin Trudeau has expressed reservations about decriminalization, Ottawa has indicated that the idea is under consideration. The City of Vancouver has expressed some interest in the idea, seeking an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act so the possession of small amounts of drugs in the city would be decriminalized.
The Liberal Leader was in Atlantic Canada on Sunday ahead of the Sept. 20 election, visiting local candidates in Miramichi, N.B., and near Charlottetown. Mr. Trudeau did not make formal campaign announcements during his stops.
The New Democrats say in their platform that if elected, they’ll declare a public-health emergency against opioids, while ending the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction. The NDP also say they plan to work with the provinces to create a safe supply of medically regulated alternatives to street drugs, support overdose-prevention sites and expand access to treatment for people struggling with addiction.
The party’s platform says the NDP would also investigate the role drug companies may have played in fuelling the opioid crisis, and seek “meaningful financial compensation” from them.
Peter Julian, the incumbent NDP MP for New Westminster-Burnaby who commented after Mr. O’Toole’s news conference, noted that the federal government has not taken steps to address the role drug companies may have played in the opioid crisis.
“We have to take on Big Pharma if we’re going to start to alleviate the opioid crisis,” he said.
Mr. Julian said Mr. O’Toole’s position on decriminalization is unclear. “We’ve been crystal clear. We need to decriminalize.”
Chris Esnard, a 49-year-old client and volunteer of the Last Door Resort residential addiction-treatment centre where Mr. O’Toole held his news conference, said there were some merits to the Conservative Leader’s ideas.
“I think it’s important. [Recovery] needs to be front and centre. I don’t think there’s enough talk about it,” Mr. Esnard, who had used cocaine, told a group of journalists after Mr. O’Toole’s news conference. “People need options.”
He was skeptical about a law-and-order focused approach to stopping drug addiction. “You can put as many police as you want on the street. If I want to find my drugs, I’ll find them,” he said. “I need a place to go where I can feel safe.”
He said there needs to be more treatment centres. “Not [every centre] is a fit for everybody.”
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