Poilievre defends safe supply criticisms, says programs ‘perpetuating’ addiction

Click to play video: 'Safe supply of drugs drops ER visits, hospitalizations, study says'
Safe supply of drugs drops ER visits, hospitalizations, study says
WATCH: A new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that users provided with a safe supply of opioids were less likely to be hospitalized or in the emergency room. – Sep 19, 2022

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is defending his criticism of programs that offer what experts call a safer supply of drugs to Canadians with addictions as a tool to tackle the opioid crisis, saying he believes these programs are “perpetuating indefinitely” people’s addictions.

In a radio interview with host Alex Pierson on AM640 Toronto that aired Tuesday, Poilievre says his recent criticism of safe supply programs was “widely misrepresented by the critics.”

AM640 is a radio station owned by Corus Entertainment, the parent company of Global News.

He then went on to reiterate some of the same concerns about safe supply that front-line harm reduction experts say demonstrate a misunderstanding of the issue.

Read more: Is safe supply for opioid use effective? Here’s what the experts, data say

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Poilievre clarified Tuesday that he supports providing medications that help reverse drug overdoses and medications that “reduce the pain and suffering of withdrawal” for those with addictions.

But he says his support doesn’t extend to the 17 federally funded pilot projects being run in pockets of the country that provide patients with prescriptions for pharmaceutical-grade opioids, offered to reduce reliance on street drugs that health officials say are increasingly contaminated with dangerously potent levels of fentanyl.

“What I don’t support is just perpetuating indefinitely their addiction, as the current approach is doing,” Poilievre told Pierson.

“We have these so-called safe supply programs, but the problem with the way they run is that they don’t guide people towards an eventual drug-free life. They keep them in the current state of addiction.”

The Conservative leader said believes the most important thing is to “keep the addict alive by avoiding overdose or contamination deaths,” but that the long-term solution must be to “get them into recovery and treatment and help them get off drugs altogether.”

Read more: Amid grim opioid death projections, Ottawa faces calls to move faster on safe supply

Experts who have been working on the front lines of the opioid crisis, among many others, have raised concern about Poilievre’s comments about harm reduction measures such as safe consumption sites and programs that offer safer supplies of opiates.

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In a video, entitled “Everything feels broken,” which was shared in November on the Conservative leader’s Twitter account, Poilievre pointed to a tent city on the outskirts of Vancouver, claiming a rise in addictions and drug use in communities across Canada is “the result of a failed experiment.”

“This is a deliberate policy by woke Liberal and NDP governments to provide taxpayer-funded drugs, flood our streets with easy access to these poisons,” Poilievre says in the video.

But some experts take strong issue with Poilievre’s comments.

Not only are his representations a “politicization” of the opioid crisis, but they also stand to further stigmatize vulnerable Canadians who are already living on the extreme margins of society with few social supports, Cheyenne Johnson, executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use, told Global News earlier this month.

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“The politicization of these issues to get votes is a bit disheartening when really there’s been clear calls by expert groups … that really show an evidence-based approach to improving the lives of people who use drugs in Canada,” Johnson said.

“It’s disheartening to see those reports and recommendations that are there really be disregarded or not utilized.”

For example, a review of 10 federally funded safer supply pilot projects in three provinces, commissioned by Health Canada and released earlier this year, found that participants reported improvements in their lives and well-being.

Another independent study published in September in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) looked at individuals who used a safer supply program in London, Ont., for three years, and found participation in the program cut down on emergency department visits and hospitalizations for people at high risk for overdose.

Read more: Safer opioid supply program leads to drop in Ontario hospitalizations, ER visits, study finds

It also found there were no opioid-related deaths among those who were part of the program.

As for Poilievre’s claim Tuesday that safer supply programs “don’t guide people towards an eventual drug-free life,” most centres that offer these programs do also offer additional wraparound supports, depending on people’s needs, Rob Boyd, CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health, told Global News earlier this month.

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His organization runs a safer supply program and other harm reduction initiatives in Canada’s capital.

“You really need a kind of a comprehensive approach because you can’t just take one piece of somebody’s life and change it. You can’t just take their substance use and change it without changing other things because that’s there for a reason: it’s actually providing them with a coping skill in a very untenable situation,” Boyd explained.

“Part of what we want to do when we’re working with the marginalized populations and people who are experiencing a lot of barriers is to create these conditions where good things start happening to them.”

Click to play video: 'Safe drug supply key recommendation in reducing toxic illicit drug-related deaths'
Safe drug supply key recommendation in reducing toxic illicit drug-related deaths

When people addicted to drugs start to see positive developments in their lives, their relationship to substances can start to change, which is why programs like safer supply are usually the beginning of a continuum of treatment, he said

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“Most of the pilot programs that are happening across Canada have wraparound supports to (them), so again, you begin to work on other issues that can kind of build up the person’s capacity and motivation for change.”

Virtually any front-line worker who supports programs for drug users would agree with Poilievre that detox and rehabilitation treatment programs are also important, Boyd said.

But some of them must offer “low-barrier” access to allow those in the throes of a difficult addiction that causes significant pain and suffering upon withdrawal an opportunity for success, Boyd said.

Read more: Safe consumption forefront of countering the overdose crisis, prime minister says

“It has to be tolerant of the fact that, even as you’re starting people on treatment, that they’re going to continue to use drugs from the illicit supply and that people aren’t punished for that, so that people can be upfront and honest about their use,” he said.

“We also need to look at other types of treatment for opioid use disorder, because we really haven’t changed an awful lot about what treatments are available for people.”

Meanwhile, data released last week by the federal government shows that while the opioid crisis continues to cause an alarming number of deaths, the outlook could be starting to improve, thanks in part to health interventions that include safe supply, in addition to other prevention and treatment measures.

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Previous modelling released in June projected that Canada could see anywhere from 1,400 to 2,400 opioid-related deaths every quarter, based on national surveillance data.

But newly updated projections by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggest the death toll could instead range from 1,300 to 2,050, every quarter through to June 2023.

Read more: More doctors are prescribing opioids to prevent their patients from dying of overdoses

The variations in these projections depend on five different scenarios with varying outcomes, based on whether health interventions could prevent the same proportion of deaths or more and whether the level of fentanyl in the drug supply remains the same or gets worse.

“The results of the model suggest that, under some scenarios, the number of opioid-related deaths through to June 2023 may remain high, or may also decrease, but not to levels seen before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” PHAC states on its website.

A total of 32,632 Canadians have died due to opioids between 2016 and June of this year, according to the latest federal data.

The majority of deaths — 90 per cent — have occurred in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, but high rates were also observed in other regions, according to the data.


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