Over the course of the last five years, Canada has faced a frightening epidemic of opioid use and abuse. As the second-highest per capita consumer of opioids (bested only by the United States), over 12,800 Canadians have died due to fatal overdoses between January 2016 and March 2019.

For years, politicians and healthcare providers have been scrambling to find a solution to what many view as a devastating crisis. Activist groups, meanwhile, have been arguing that not enough is being done to mitigate the damage being done by this epidemic. With a federal election on October 21st, many are arguing that the opioid crisis has not been given the attention it deserves within the campaign.

Canada’s History with Opioids

In Canada, synthetic opioids were first introduced to the prescription market in the 1950s. Slow-release formulations of these drugs were gradually introduced in the 1990s and 2000s, peaking with the release of American drug OxyContin. Purdue Pharma, the creators of OxyContin, strategically invested in aggressive marketing tactics to convince physicians that their drug was an effective painkiller that would not cause addiction. 

In 2007, however, a high profile legal battle against Purdue Pharma revealed that the company had falsely advertised its product as non-addictive. In reality, people who had been using the drug regularly reported addiction and withdrawal symptoms. While this revelation resulted in a drastic decrease in the number of OxyContin pills prescribed, some doctors continued to prescribe it into the following decade.  They simply saw no other alternative to ease the chronic pain of some of their patients. 

Further compounding the opioid crisis was the flooding of illicit fentanyl pills into the Canadian black market from overseas. Many patients who had been cut off from receiving medically prescribed opioids to cure chronic pain turned to fentanyl to substitute their medication. Unregulated and illegally obtained, this drug, which is 100 times more potent than morphine, has since claimed thousands of lives. 

Stigmatized Healthcare

With drug use stereotypically linked to crime and violence, addiction is heavily stigmatized within society. Karen Ward, a Vancouver-based drug policy advocate and user, states that many drug users fear social ostracism, which in turn leads them to use on their own and without anyone’s help. Precisely, this has made overdose deaths so dangerously common, as there is no one to call for help.

Some have argued that this stigmatization has permeated the healthcare system, creating a judgemental space where addicts find themselves feeling unwelcome. Illustrating the problem, one recovering addict testified that while the so-called health care “red-carpet” was rolled out to help treat him when he was diagnosed with diabetes, but when he reached out for help with his drug addiction, he found the circumstances to be far more hostile. 

For instance, he found that he could not use his health card to pay for addiction services but was asked to use his credit card instead. For those with limited financial means, this would pose as an obstacle to receiving the help they may urgently require. 

Party Politics and the Opioid Epidemic

On September 27th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared the opioid crisis to be a “national public emergency.” Considering that a death occurs every 2 hours because of drug overdose, however, many are arguing that the government has not done enough. In the eyes of critics, they have not been treating the epidemic with the severity it needs. 

The relative silence on the opioid crisis throughout the ongoing campaign has perhaps given fuel to the argument that it is being neglected. Experts claim that the stigma surrounding drug use has been a major reason why politicians have avoided addressing the topic directly. For instance, parties and candidates may fear losing the voters who buy into stereotypes of drug use’s correlation to crime. 

While the Liberal Party has rejected advocates’ proposals to decriminalize hard drugs, they committed to spending $100 million on drug treatment programs and investing in more safe injection sites. But advocates see the party’s plan as inadequate. The decriminalization of drugs would mean fewer drug users standing in court with the potential of being incarcerated, and more of them would be able to seek help from drug treatment court. 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been thoroughly critical of the Liberals’ plan to increase the number of safe injection sites and has also refused to consider decriminalizing hard drugs. Scheer stated that these proposed policies would enable a “lifetime of addiction” for those already susceptible to drug abuse, whereas the Conservative plan intends to get more people off of harmful drugs. 

Along similar lines as the Liberals, the NDP has vowed to declare a national public emergency if elected. Safe injection sites and access to mental health services are being pushed as an important part of the NDP’s crisis management plan. Leader Jagmeet Singh has also been a strong advocate for investigating pharmaceutical companies in Canada for their contribution to perpetuating this crisis. 

With the crisis continuing to plague the nation and the livelihood of people, some believe that the negligence towards it runs against Canadian ethics. The upcoming election may therefore prove crucial for those suffering from opioid addiction.

Edited by Lewie Haar.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image by Marco Verch via Flickr Creative Commons