Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns is tired of watching the toxic drug crisis play out in his backyard, with people continuing to die faster than the federal government can find a solution.
“The toxic drug crisis is devastating,” Johns said. “Each year we’re seeing more deaths from toxic drug poisonings than from the year before. Clearly, the approach Canada’s been using isn’t enough.
“We’re losing so many people and it’s so rapid, so quick and the federal government is literally moving at a snail’s pace,” he said. More than 36,000 Canadians have died since 2016 of toxic drug use, he noted.
“The government should be learning from others who’ve seemed to handle substance use, and prevention better than Canada has.”
Johns looked to Portugal, a European country that faced a similar crisis more than two decades ago, only the drug of choice at the time was heroin instead of fentanyl. Portugal “was once one of Europe’s worst countries for substance use. Yet they’ve seen a sharp decline in overdoses and substance use because they had the political will to make necessary investments and policy changes.”
Johns, the federal NDP’s mental health and harm reduction critic, decided he needed to see first hand how Portugal faced the problem and found a solution.
“I couldn’t wait for an official government trip, not with what’s happening at home,” he said from Portugal in July. Johns paid for the trip out of his own pocket.
It turns out he wasn’t the only one looking for solutions. After a conversation with Liberal MP Brendan Hanley before he left, Johns ended up with a travelling partner. Hanley is former chief medical officer of health for Yukon, “a territory with the highest per capita toxic drug overdose death rate in the country,” Johns said.
“He voted for my bill for a health approach to substance use along with 13 other members of his party.”
Johns and Hanley met with several officials in Portugal including Joao Goulao of the General Directorate for Intervention on Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies, who is considered to be the “architect” of Portugal’s national drug response program. They also spent time with a mobile low threshold methadone van team and met with the coordinator of the Centro das Taipas detoxification unit at DICAD—the regional health administration of Lisbon.
Having Hanley—“a trained and experienced Canadian public health expert”—accompanying him on his independent trip was “invaluable,” Johns said. The biggest takeaway for him was seeing first hand how depoliticizing the issue and letting experts in the mental health and addiction fields drive the solutions turned the crisis around.
“It’s been an eye-opener, and really an incredible learning experience,” Johns said of his trip.
When the formal part of his visit was finished Johns had an opportunity to see more of the country and speak to “everyday” Portuguese people. He said most of the people he spoke to do not share the sentiment of some politicians that the approach Portugal’s federal government has taken is failing.
Canada can learn from Portugal’s coordinated approach, he added. “They developed a national strategy that was expert-driven and they implemented it with timelines, resources and they scaled up rapidly.
“I believe we have the ingredients in Port Alberni to achieve a lot of their outcomes with the right federal and provincial supports,” Johns added.