Mr. Chair, the number of Canadian lives lost to the opioid crisis is staggering, sobering and growing. This crisis is affecting every community and every demographic across Canada. Over 10,000 Canadians have died from overdoses in the last three years alone and the death toll shows little sign of abating. Last year alone, nearly 4,000 Canadians lost their lives, more than from motor vehicle accidents and homicides combined.
The origins of this crisis can be traced back to the late 1990s, when the number of opioid prescriptions began to increase dramatically in Canada. Experts allege that drug manufacturers promoted this proliferation through a deliberate effort to minimize the risks associated with potent opioids like OxyContin.
According to drug safety expert, Dr. David Juurlink, the message that physicians should use these drugs more liberally was one they were happy to hear because of the limited treatment options available for chronic pain. Canada now ranks as the world's second biggest consumer of pharmaceutical opioids, second only to the United States.
To put that in perspective, 21 million prescriptions for opioids were dispensed in 2017. That is enough to stock every medicine cabinet in the country. In addition to the widespread dependency that was fostered by over-prescribing opioids, the escalating death toll that we are currently witnessing is largely attributable to the fact that the illicit or street drug supply in Canada has become toxic, overwhelmingly laced with poison and tainted with fentanyl.
A recent study by the B.C. Centre on Substance Use found that just 39% of drugs tested at two supervised consumption sites contained what the buyer thought they had been sold and there has been a devastating impact on first responders across our nation.
Given the scale and depth of this crisis, it is easy to succumb to despair and it is tempting to claim that there is nothing more that government can do. While there is no immediate or complete fix to this overdose epidemic, that does not mean we have exhausted all options for action. Indeed, there is much more that can and must be done.
Canada's New Democrats have a number of positive evidence-based proposals to bring this crisis under control. First, we must recognize that this crisis requires an emergency declaration at the national level. British Columbia, the epicentre of the opioid crisis, has been in a declared state of health emergency since April 2016. Canada's New Democrats have been calling for a similar declaration at the federal level for over two years. Unfortunately, the federal Liberal government has refused to use this tool. The Liberals claim that declaring a public health emergency is unnecessary, saying it would provide no additional levers for action. This is absolutely false.
Such a declaration would constitute a formal recognition that we have reached an emergency situation in this country when we are burying 11 Canadians a day. It would affirm to the public the urgency with which the federal government is approaching this crisis. In addition to its symbolic value, however, a declaration of a public health emergency would have the practical effect of empowering the federal government to coordinate a pan-Canadian response to this crisis, something it has not done to date.
Specifically, section 8(1) of the Emergencies Act grants the federal government clear authority to make orders or regulations that it believes are necessary for dealing with an emergency. This includes: the authorization of, or direction to, any person to render essential services; the regulation of the distribution and availability of essential goods, services and resources; the authorization and making of emergency payments; and the establishment of emergency shelters and hospitals.
This means we could cut red tape and allow the federal government to rapidly authorize and support overdose prevention services currently operating illegally and with no federal funding, but saving lives. This means that health professionals currently working at unsanctioned sites throughout Canada would no longer be forced to put their licences and personal liberty on the line to save lives. It would allow for the emergency allocation of resources on the scale needed to adequately address the mounting death toll.
Second, we must begin to treat substance use and addiction for what they are: health issues. Therefore, we need substantial new federal money for evidence-based addiction treatment across all modalities, from abstinence to 12-step to opioid substitution, tailored for every demographic from youth to women to indigenous Canadians. Treatment must be available as a fully insured service provided by our public health care system so that individuals and families can get timely access at quality facilities, regardless of income or ability to pay.
When people are ready to get treatment, they must get it immediately. They cannot wait even a day or they are risking a death sentence, yet on this score our public system fails utterly. For example, the wait-list for publicly funded beds at the Pine River Institute, Ontario's only residential treatment program for kids aged 13 to 19 years old, is a year and a half. Angie Hamilton, executive director of Families for Addiction Recovery, has rightly called the situation “unconscionable”. It is time to recognize that substance use disorder is a disease like any other. It is past time we closed the fatal gap in our health care system that fails to deliver the treatment that Canadians need.
Third, in the U.S., federal authorities have secured criminal pleas and over $600 million in fines, damages and other costs from Purdue Pharma for misbranding OxyContin with the intent to defraud and mislead. This summer, the NDP government of British Columbia also filed a civil lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors to recoup the enormous public costs of addressing this crisis. That lawsuit is open to every province and territory and the federal government to join. If corporate executives minimized or concealed the addictive qualities of prescription opioids in the U.S., it is very possible that they did so in Canada as well. The New Democrats say it is time for the federal government to support B.C.'s lawsuit and launch an investigation itself to determine if criminal sanctions are warranted under federal law.
Fourth, we must be willing to look past the discredited “war on drugs” ideology in favour of an evidence-based approach to drug policy in Canada. Given that overdose mortality rates are overwhelmingly being driven by the tainted illicit drug supply, as every police officer in the country will tell us, it is clearly necessary to explore the decriminalization and medical regulation of substance use. Indeed, it is obvious that we could avoid thousands of unnecessary deaths if, instead of consuming poison, substance users had consistent access to regulated chemicals in a known dosage through our health care system.
The example of Portugal shows that decriminalization works. In 1999, there was a drug crisis in Portugal, related to a cheap toxic heroin supply. Faced with rising harms, the Government of Portugal decided to treat substance use as a public health issue, not a criminal one. The crisis in Portugal soon stabilized and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. Ninety per cent of public money spent fighting drugs in Portugal is now channelled toward health care goals and just 10% on enforcement. In contrast, in Canada, 70% of funding spent combatting drug use is spent on enforcement. In Portugal, six people per million die from drug overdoses. In Canada, the number is 110. It is time Canada explored this approach.
Finally, I wish to conclude my remarks by speaking directly to every Canadian who has lost a loved one. Their courage to show up, to speak up, to share their experiences and to demand more in the knowledge that we can do better, is inspiring. It is in the service of the greatest legacy we can pay to those we have lost to do everything in our power to prevent the avoidable, unnecessary death of another loved one to addiction. We can put an end to the marginalization and stigmatization of our country's most vulnerable citizens. We can turn the tide on this crisis and we can forge a better future based on courage, compassion, love and science. It is time we did so, and the New Democrats are working hard toward those goals.