Dr. Bonnie Henry says ‘legalizing and regulating’ would minimize harms of toxic drug crisis

Dr. Bonnie Henry says 'legalizing and regulating' would minimize harms of toxic drug crisis
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Dr. Bonnie Henry speaking to the Standing Committee of Health for its study on the opioid epidemic and toxic drug crisis in Canada.

Legalizing and regulating drugs is one of the tools that would help mitigate the harms of the toxic drug crisis, B.C.’s provincial health officer told the federal government’s Standing Committee on Health on Thursday.

The standing committee started a study on Canada’s opioid epidemic and toxic drug crisis on Dec. 4, 2023 and held its 10th meeting on the topic on May 30.

Dr. Bonnie Henry was one of the witnesses who testified on May 30, and told the committee that “legalization and regulation minimizes harms.”

“I have always said, and what I continue to say, is that prohibition is one of the leading causes of the issue that we’re in right now, and that legalizing and regulating is one way to manage the illegal and toxic drug crisis that we’re dealing with,” Henry said.

RELATED: Health officer advises B.C. to offer smokable fentanyl in report backing safer supply

Henry says the unregulated and toxic supply of drugs is the central cause of the high number of overdose deaths in B.C. and the country.

“I want to make the point that the proximal cause of this crisis is the increased potent and unpredictable drugs on the street, and that is something that is very different than we have faced prior to this crisis,” Henry said.

“The potency of what is on the street right now is because fentanyl, or synthetic opioids, have replaced plant-based opioids like heroin, which were causes of problems in the past, because it is cheap and it’s easy to produce. And I think we do ourselves a disservice when we call what’s on the street fentanyl, because it is not. It is hastily manufactured synthetic drug that has fentanyl-like properties, but produced in uncontrolled conditions and mixed with adulterants.”

Henry says there are a number of tools, including legalizing and regulating drugs, that need to be used in order to address the ongoing toxic drug crisis.

“It’s very important to recognize that harm reduction and recovery and treatment are not in competition,” she said.

“It is not ‘either or,’ they are both essential and necessary parts of a continuum from prevention, from understanding what’s on the street to harm reduction to treatment to recovery, and includes everything from Naloxone, from access to drug checking, overdose prevention services, access to prescription medications for people to get them away from the toxic street drugs.”

Thus far, the committee has received 20 written briefs and heard from 46 witnesses on the topic of the opioid epidemic and toxic drug crisis in Canada.


In addition to Henry, Dr. Paxton Bach, clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia; Dr. Mylène Drouin, regional public health director and Dr. Carole Morissette, lead physician and harm reduction and overdose prevention at Direction régionale de santé publique de Montréal; and Earl Thiessen, executive director of Oxford House Foundation presented at the May 30 meeting.

Bach says he and his colleagues have been witness to the “ruthlessness” of the problem and how it has evolved over time.

“We see people from all corners of the province, from all walks of life, from all sectors of society, and we bear witness to the terrible damage that’s been wrought by the current toxic drug supply, and we see the uncertainty that touches everyone, knowing how quickly it’s evolving and knowing how limited we are in adapting to this,” Bach said.

“In practice, that means I watch harm reduction intervention save lives in real time, and I see people failing to be able to access them and suffering the consequences.”

Bach also said that a number of resources and solutions need to be implemented to address the crisis.

“It’s just all too apparent to me and my colleagues and, I think, anyone working on the front lines in this sphere that there is no one approach, no one solution that will address all the highly specific needs, rapidly evolving needs of every one of these individuals and communities,” he said.

Speaking in French, Drouin says in Montreal each month there are 86 emergency interventions at supervised consumption sites, which is six times higher than the number there were in 2020.

“I think we also need to recognize that there’s a housing crisis on top of all of that, which is bringing forth a homelessness crisis. All of this put together is creating a dangerous mix for our neighbourhoods,” Drouin said, translated by a House of Commons interpreter.

“We must not stand divided, Canadians across the country are dying. We need to stand together. This is a crisis that requires all sectors of society to come together to tackle it and we have hard scientific data that allows us to target our solutions where they would be most impactful. We cannot afford to fail.”

Thiessen, on the other hand, argued against decriminalization and introducing a safer supply of drugs, saying instead drug users should have to face the choice of seeking treatment or continuing to use and facing a fine.

“Decriminalization, to me, is to give the person the option to either seek treatment or to accept the charge for the illegal activity that is taking place,” Thiessen said.

“In my opinion, the way decriminalization and safe supply is being presented is not the path forward. It’s making problems worse, it’s prolonging trauma and keeping people in a perpetual state of drug use. In my opinion, safe supply is akin to pharmaceutical colonization. There are other methods but for the people I serve the path forward is a recovering focused path.”

Thiessen says there should be more medical detox options available to help people manage withdrawal, and more treatment and recovery.

“There needs to be a path forward to healing,” Thiessen said.

Laura BroughamLaura Brougham

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