Benzodiazepines and Drug Reform in Canada

Canada's illicit drug market is increasingly problematic.

Benzodiazepines, a drug commonly used in anti-anxiety and sleeping medications, are appearing more frequently in cases of drug overdose in Canada.

“The drug of abuse is fentanyl,” a Green Party of Canada representative (who wished to remain anonymous) states via email interview on February 14, 2022. “Benzodiazepines are being added to supplies of fentanyl before they are sold and consumed,” further contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis in Canada.

Fentanyl is responsible for the majority of drug overdoses in Canada. The pandemic has only worsened the situation, as evidenced by the increasing number of deaths. Furthermore, the frequency at which benzodiazepines are detected in drug overdose cases reveals how Canada’s illicit drug market is diversifying. Between July 2020 and October 2021, the appearance of benzodiazepines in drug overdoses in British Colombia went from 15 percent to 53 percent, according to the B.C. Coroner Service’s Illicit Drug Toxicity report from December 2021 (CBC News).

Evidently, current approaches to addressing overdoses and the illicit drug market have been largely ineffective. What needs to change to combat the increasingly dangerous and diversifying illicit drug market in Canada?

“The Green Party of Canada believes in decriminalization for possession,” says the GPC representative, “and having a safe supply. In addition, GPC would like to see an increase in funding from the federal government provided to the provincial and territorial governments so that publicly funded healthcare can include 1) pharmacare and 2) enhanced mental health care. Both of these elements are key in treating addiction when a person is ready for treatment.”

When asked how to address the situation immediately, particularly given the fact that Canadians are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the GPC representative answered: ”Decriminalization of possession. Safe injection sites. Safe supply. Pharmacare. Enhanced mental health care, and funding subsidized housing.”

There are solutions. But what will it take for the federal government to commit more resources? Provincial and territorial governments are responsible for administering funding from the federal government. Some of the responsibility is on our provincial/territorial leaders, but most of it is on Canada’s government (it is a “national” crisis after all).

The current ‘freedom’ protests and blockades in Canada are certainly not helping the case for drug reform in Canada (in general, they do not have a progressive tone). The immense attention that the anti-vax, anti-mandate, and anti-Trudeau protests demand is barely a discussion about the immediate, real-world harm that people are facing due to the pandemic. What about improving our healthcare system so as to avoid another CHSLD Herron? What about the Canadians dying unnecessarily due to mismanaged, ineffective illicit drug policies? Free universal healthcare seems to lack in its universality.

If Canada was in an opioid crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, what exactly are we in now?

Ryan Dumont

Ryan (Tiohtià:ke/Montréal) is a political science student at Concordia University. His interests in green politics include healthcare reform, feminism, Indigenous affairs, homelessness, education, immigration, asylum-seekers and refugees, drug reform, workers' rights, and more.

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