Ya’ara Saks, Canada’s new minister of mental health and addictions, inherits a complex portfolio and an opioid crisis that has only worsened nearly every year since 2016.
Advocates and addiction experts say they would like to see the new minister take a holistic approach to the crisis and move quickly to defend and expand harm reduction policies.
More than 36,000 people in Canada died from opioid overdoses between 2016 and 2022, about 20 people per day in 2022 alone.
Saks is a relatively new MP: she was elected in a 2020 by-election. She will take over a relatively new file that was created in 2021. This is her first ministerial position.
Saks said she was “honoured” to be appointed as a minister and vowed to address the crisis.
“We will use all the tools at our disposal to work with our partners to deliver services when and where they are needed to end this crisis,” he said in a statement to CBC.
Dr. Paxton Bach, an addiction specialist and co-medical director of the BC Center on Substance Use (BCCSU), said he hopes Saks will be a “strong and outspoken advocate for the kind of system change we need to turn the tide.”
While Bach says some progress has been made, more needs to be done at all levels of government.
“Collectively, we are all clearly failing. We are failing because the numbers continue to get worse,” he said. She called on Saks to bring together various levels of government and community groups to address the crisis.
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In January, the BC government obtained a waiver from Ottawa that allows it to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs for a period of three years. The goal of the pilot project is to reduce drug-related arrests and direct people toward health supports.
The waiver “is a first step, but the fact that you could be criminalized in other parts of the country … doesn’t make sense to me,” said Janet Butler McPhee, co-executive director of the HIV Legal Network.
Toronto made a similar request to decriminalize simple possession in January 2022; has not yet been approved. In May, the city reviewed his application and asked for a model that goes further than the one in BC
Saks will now be responsible for overseeing Toronto’s request, and possibly others. TO informative note prepared by the previous minister last year suggests that another 55 municipalities have expressed interest in decriminalization.
Butler-McPhee says that while she hopes decriminalization will spread to other jurisdictions, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
“We need someone who understands that it’s not going to be just a magic silver bullet,” he said. “It’s a whole set of things that need to happen and those things need to happen quickly.”
Budget allocates millions to address crises
Advocates have been pushing for the expansion of harm reduction projects such as safe supply and supervised consumption sites.
The federal spring budget committed nearly $360 million over the next five years to address the opioid crisis, including $144 million for community-led projects such as safe consumption sites and safe supply programs. Another $4.6 million is earmarked for Health Canada to “expedite” the authorization of new drug control and safe consumption sites.
Safe supply programs are intended to offer people who use drugs an alternative to toxic street products that can be laced with deadly opioids like fentanyl. Of the more than 7,300 overdose deaths that occurred last year, 81 percent involved fentanyl, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Guy Felicella, a fellow clinical adviser at BCCSU, says he’d like to see new safe-supply programs that are less bureaucratic and allow people access without a prescription.
“We cannot prescribe our way out of this crisis,” he said. “We need another path out of the medical system.”
Petra Schulz, co-founder of the advocacy group Moms Stop The Harm, agrees with Felicella.
“We need programs that are outside of the medicalized system. So I supply non-medical insurance through compassionate clubs or other models,” she said.
Saks’ appointment comes as conservatives have been attacking federal liberals’ response to overdose deaths.
Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has claimed that safe supply and consumption policies only contribute to the crisis. In May, he filed a motion asking the government to stop all programs that provide non-toxic drugs to those suffering from addiction and instead redirect funds to treatment services.
Bach says that while more money should be invested in treatment, it shouldn’t be seen as a trade-off with harm reduction.
“If we’re having that debate, then we’ve already lost. We’re already off course,” he said.
“We need to invest in this entire spectrum of care for people who use substances. It’s critical. Anything else, any other discussion is a distraction from the system we need to build.”
Saks says he intends to work across partisan lines to address the crisis.
“I strongly believe that this issue is non-partisan and I intend to build bridges to help Canadians,” he said in a statement.