Ottawa remains mum on whether it will pursue criminal charges against the pharmaceutical industry as Canada's opioid crisis continues unmitigated. According to a federal brief, charges against drug companies would result only in minimal fines.
Under the federal Food and Drugs Act, it is illegal to mislead when selling or advertising a drug, punishable by a fine of up to $5 million. Before 2014, that fine was a measly $5,000.
Health policy expert Dr. Joel Lexchin condemned the "trivial" fine, whereas a ministerial brief claimed those low penalties might deter Ottawa from pursuing criminal charges.
According to regulatory compliance lawyer, Glenford Jameson, pursuing these charges can be lengthy and overly bureaucratic, with multiple steps.
"The system is not incredibly well designed to head to charges immediately," he said, adding the low fines would likely result in a "show trial."
"The Government of Canada could spend millions of dollars and years building a case for criminal charges, with the prospect of only a small fine as a penalty," reads the brief.
A Mental Health and Addictions spokesperson did not directly address if that is the case. "We are continuing to explore all appropriate options to hold industry accountable for its role in the opioid crisis," reads a written statement to the CBC.
The spokesperson instead supported B.C.'s ongoing civil suit against more than 40 pharmaceutical companies it had launched in 2018.
Last June, the province reached a $150 million settlement with Purdue Pharma Canada on behalf of all provinces and territories.
In 2020, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the U.S. over handling its addictive prescription opioid OxyContin. The following year, consulting firm McKinsey & Company paid nearly $600 million to 47 U.S. states to settle criminal investigations stemming from its efforts to bolster opioid sales.
"The opioid crisis originated with the invention of Oxycontin by Purdue Pharma in 1995," claimed Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre. "Oxycontin was aggressively promoted and overprescribed, leading to a massive increase in opioid dependency."
Since 2016, over 32,000 Canadians have died of opioid-related overdoses and a further 33,000 hospitalizations.
Lexchin took manufacturers to account for claiming opioids could treat chronic pain when it is only used for acute pain, as experienced with broken bones.
"They were targeting people who injured their back at work, who injured their back by bending over and picking something up off the floor," said Lexchin. "Anything that could lead to pain was deemed a target."
"That's like getting a parking ticket when you're going for an interview for a job that'll pay you a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year," he said.
The retired emergency care physician said Ottawa should pursue a criminal case to convey that deceptive promotion is unacceptable in Canada.
If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not take swift action, Poilievre pledged to sue the pharmaceutical industry to fund drug treatment if elected prime minister.
"After eight years of Justin Trudeau, Canadians are suffering. We will turn hurt into hope, and we will bring home justice for Canadians," said Poilievre during a campaign stop in Metro Vancouver — an epicentre for the opioid crisis he previously called "hell on earth."
"The NDP-Liberal approach has failed. It has put more drugs on our streets, leading to more addictions, deaths and despair," claimed the Tory leader.
Poilievre also blamed the province of B.C. for contributing to the problem after Health Canada granted them a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize the use of small amounts of hard drugs.
The province's three-year program commenced on January 31, permitting residents over 18 to have 2.5 grams of heroin, crack, cocaine, fentanyl, MDMA, and meth on hand.
According to first responders, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside received a whopping 45 overdose calls on March 22 — more than double that of a typical day and a new daily record.
"It's an overwhelming number for us," said Keith Stewart, assistant chief with the Vancouver Fire Rescue Service.
B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) attributed the inflated call volume to more toxic and dangerous illicit drugs available for widespread consumption.
"The drugs are being cut with so many different things at this time," said Stewart. "We're seeing some negative effects."
If Health Canada does not reverse the drug exemption, Poilievre pledged to end the provision of a safer supply of drugs and roll back decriminalization. The Tory reiterated that flooding communities with more "taxpayer-funded drugs" is not the solution.
Poilievre said a Conservative government would focus on providing users with more recovery and treatment options. He also believes in distributing medications that ease the symptoms of drug withdrawal and overdose antidotes, such as naloxone.
To pay for those, the Opposition leader would launch a $44 billion lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry that manufactures prescription drugs, causing grief to Canadians suffering from addiction.
Poilievre said his government would cover the federal share of estimated healthcare costs ($3.9 billion), federal money spent on the opioid crisis ($3.0 billion), federal criminal justice system costs ($10.2 billion) and lost tax revenue ($27 billion).
"Those programs are going to cost a lot of money," he said, adding the suit would fund treatment and recovery programs. "We will ensure that all Canadians can access treatment and recovery programs."