What is behind Pierre Poilièvre’s controversial drug policy?

OTTAWA – Conservative leader Pierre Poilièvre promises a new approach to managing Canada’s drug crisis, but what he says about that crisis is an irresponsible distortion of the facts, his critics argue.

His pledges — including the suggestion that he scale back safe supply programs in favor of more resources for addiction treatment — mark a step for Poilièvre away from the issues he leaned on to win his party’s leadership this year and toward building a story to win the government in the next elections.

Why he’s focusing on drug policy now, insiders say, follows his campaign-style tour of British Columbia this month, where he personally saw some of the impact of a drug crisis that is expected to kill more than 2,000 people this year.

Governments across the country are searching for answers to an epidemic of toxic drug use that claimed 21 lives a day between January and March of this year alone, federal statistics suggest.

In a video Poilièvre made during a recent trip to British Columbia, the epicenter of Canada’s crisis, he blames the situation on what he called a “failed experiment” launched by “awakened liberal and NDP governments” to promote safer deliveries. of illegal drugs. .

“There is no safe supply of these drugs. They are deadly,” he said.

“They are deadly and they are relentlessly addictive. Giving people more of these drugs will not free them from their addiction and will only lead to their eventual death.”

Instead, Poilièvre argued, money spent on safe supplies should be diverted to addiction treatment.

To support his claim, he cites two data points: a claim that overdose deaths have risen 300 percent in British Columbia since 2015, which he links to safe supply regimes; and that Alberta’s overdose deaths have halved, which he attributes to that province’s focus on treatment programs.

The statistics of the provinces paint a more nuanced picture.

Alberta has increased the number of fully funded treatment beds by 476 since 2019, while BC has added 340 beds in the past five years, according to an analysis by the Edmonton Journal.

Data from Alberta shows that while overdose deaths have declined since a monthly high of 174 last November, they are still higher than before the pandemic. At the same time, demand for opioid substitutes or safe places to use drugs — which keep users away from potentially toxic street drugs — has also risen, provincial statistics show.

Meanwhile, BC had 529 deaths from toxic drug overdoses in 2015, and 1,644 in the first eight months of 2022, according to provincial statistics. In September alone, there were 19,784 visits to overdose prevention and supervised consumption services.

The safe supply approach – also known as harm reduction – is what keeps people from dying, Poilièvre’s critics argued this week, and doing away with it threatens to exacerbate the crisis.

Mental Health and Addictions Secretary Carolyn Bennett, who earlier this week called Poilivre’s comments “populist nonsense,” echoed that sentiment Wednesday by announcing $15 million in funding for substance abuse prevention programs.

Since 2017, 42,000 overdoses have been reversed, she said, and Poilièvre’s position is “annoying” as the benefits of harm reduction and drug-assisted therapy are well understood.

“I don’t know what part of the evidence the detractors are ignoring,” she said.

But supporters of Poilièvre’s position argue that what he’s looking at is the perception that Canada’s drug problems are getting worse, not better.

Political pressure to present ideas on how to tackle Canada’s toxic drug problem has mounted on the Conservatives, who until recently had framed the issue as a criminal issue to be dealt with through the legal system.

However, in 2021, then-leader Erin O’Toole began to reframe drug use as a health problem, pledging to spend more money on rehabilitation and treatment, and focusing law enforcement on drug trafficking and importation—an approach that was repeated by Poilivre.

Dan Robertson, who helped run O’Toole’s campaign, said Poilièvre’s approach to the issue is “dead on the money”.

While conservatives are mocked for raising crime as a problem, even as the statistics suggest it’s on the decline, that criticism doesn’t hold up when voters “feel” it’s a problem, Robertson said.

The same goes for the drug crisis.

“All a person has to do is walk through the center of any city in this country and he or she will see all around them that drug addiction – and the problems associated with it – has become much, much worse,” Robertson said. .

Poilièvre’s focus on drug policy now, insiders say, is linked to his campaign-style tour of British Columbia this month.

It wasn’t his first trip – he traveled extensively in BC during his successful leadership campaign earlier this year, not making a debut on the subject at the time.

But as his party begins to set the stage for the next election campaign, ignoring the issue is not an option: the Conservatives lost four seats in British Columbia in the 2021 campaign and must win them back. Picking up a few more wouldn’t hurt either.

In that province, the drug epidemic is battling a housing crisis and an increase in violent crime, a mix of problems that played out last month in that province’s municipal elections.

The results – especially in Vancouver – serve as a signal for Team Poilièvre. Ken Sim, a right-wing mayoral candidate focused on public safety issues, ousted former NDP MP-turned-Mayor Kennedy Stewart who, among other things, championed drug decriminalization.

Federal conservative insiders acknowledge it may feel early to test out campaign narratives for the next federal election — the supply and confidence deal sees the NDP backing minority liberals until 2025 in exchange for action on NDP priorities.

But then again, maybe not, and in the meantime, Poilièvre is encouraged to test concepts and approaches to see how they land.

Tackling the issue of drug policy also plays a role in Poilièvre’s umbrella brand, Robertson noted.

“It fits his ‘gatekeeper story’, that so-called experts don’t really know what they’re doing and just make things worse.”

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