Liberals' misguided billion-dollar drug strategy sees escalation of overdose deaths

A one-billion dollar federal program geared toward reducing the harm of substance use on families, individuals and communities has yielded no tangible results and instead coincides with a rise in overdose deaths and drug use.

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A report published by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada evaluating the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy (CDSS) shows that the program has utterly failed.

A tabulation of the strategy in the five years it ran, from 2017 to 2022, shows that overdose and drug-related deaths continue to rise in Canada despite the federal government spending more than $800 million in a failed attempt to curb the opioid and overdose crisis.

“Over $800 million was allocated across several federal departments to directly address the overdose crisis,” the report reads. Yet according to the key takeaways on the impacts of the strategy “rates of substance use and related harm continue to rise.”

Interestingly, several different funding sources were not included in this report.

“Recent Opioid Initiative funding and activities, including from Budget 2019, the 2020 Fall Economic Statement, Budget 2021, and Budget 2022, are not reported in financial information in public reporting,” it explains.

It turns out that the federal government has committed over $1 billion since 2017 to “directly address the overdose crisis,” according to a December 2023 update detailing federal actions.

This included more than $359.2 million over five years through Budget 2023 for the renewed Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy.

The federal government is opting to renew this strategy that has proven ineffective; a strategy that has been unable to produce tangible outcomes with data clearly showing that it has only exacerbated the overdose crisis and subsequent harms.

The update claims that “Funding has been used to increase access to evidence-based treatment and harm reduction services; fund awareness, prevention, and stigma reduction activities; and support research and surveillance initiatives to inform the response.”

Former Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett became unhinged in the House, likewise claiming that this is an “evidence-based” approach and blaming the opposition for refusing to “save lives.”

Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre rightly points out that there was a 300% increase in overdose calls to the Saskatoon Fire Department from 2019 to 2021.

It’s an alarming number that is further reinforced by data from the 2019 Canadian Alcohol and Drugs Survey showing that problematic use of psychoactive pharmaceuticals has gone way up, not down, since the drug strategy came into effect in 2017.

Not only was problematic use of psychoactive pharmaceuticals among users up, but illegal drug use and overdoses are up, too, while the harms related to drug use are either higher or similar to pre-2017 levels.

Federal government data on opioid and stimulant-related harms show that “opioid toxicity deaths in Canada reported so far in 2023 (January-June) were 5% higher compared to the same period in 2022.” Likewise, the number of opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations in Canada reported in the same period was 11% higher.

The vast majority of opioid-related deaths occurred in the province of British Columbia (BC), according to that data, despite the province having been pioneering harm reduction and safe supply for over two decades.

BC implemented the use of overdose prevention sites and safe supply in 2016 when the province declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Alarmingly, illicit drug deaths have nearly tripled since that time – there were 994 deaths in 2016 verses 2,293 in 2022. The number of deaths per day has more than doubled, too.

BC’s own data further shows that deaths from fentanyl have nearly doubled since 2019.

A report from the BC Coroners Office states that “From Apr 2020-Nov 2022, approximately 14% of cases had extreme fentanyl concentrations as compared to 8% from Jan 2019 to Mar 2020.”

Sadly it looks like BC will continue on this deadly trajectory with the latest revelation that the province will allow for “safer supply” fentanyl to be given to minors, without parental consent.

The lack of introspection is astounding and the federal government's drug substance strategy is no better.

Their report says in black and white that it doesn’t know how to measure outcomes or achievements.

“There did not appear to be a strong shared understanding among partners on the Strategy’s expected outcomes and achievements. There was also a lack of clarity in how activities described under the CDSS have contributed to the Strategy’s long-term outcomes… partners often had difficulty describing how their work related to that of other partners and were often unable to comment on the overall progress of the CDSS,” it reads.

One billion dollars later, it’s safe to say that “safer” supply isn’t living up to its name.

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