British Columbians who tuned into the news Thursday might have gone to bed that night thinking they could soon be buying cocaine as easily  as they can purchase a beer.

In question period at the  legislature Thursday morning the BC Liberals grilled the government  about Langley-based cannabis company Adastra Holdings’ Feb. 22 announcement had been granted federal permission to “legally possess, produce, sell and distribute” cocaine. 

At the time, the publicly traded company  said it wished to position itself to align with ongoing harm reduction  efforts and to “meet the demand for a safe supply of cocaine.”

“Cocaine isn’t prescribed, it isn’t safe,  and this is wrong,” said leader of the Opposition Kevin Falcon in the  legislature. “Commercializing cocaine as a business opportunity amounts  to legalizing cocaine trafficking, full stop.”

He blamed B.C.’s  decriminalization pilot program for the announcement, despite the fact  it does not legalize the sale or manufacturing of any drug.

“The NDP’s plunge headlong  into decriminalization without the proper guardrails that even the  federal government insisted should be in place is absolutely not  something that we’re going to support on this side of the house,” said  Falcon, who previously supported the decriminalization pilot.

The opposition and some experts have  characterized safe supply, a harm reduction measure an expert panel  convened by the chief coroner has repeatedly called for, as a “public  supply of addictive drugs.”

Some media outlets had already reported  Adastra’s announcement earlier Thursday morning. Following the exchange  in question period, the news cycle spiralled.

In response to a question from Global News  at St. Paul’s Hospital Thursday afternoon, Premier David Eby said he was  “astonished” the province hadn’t been aware of Health Canada’s decision  to grant Adastra an exemption to handle cocaine. 

Eby said a prescribed safe supply of  cocaine, which some public health experts and drug user rights advocates  have called for, “is not part of our provincial plan” to address the  toxic drug crisis. 

The attention appeared good for Adastra’s  business. The company’s stock price rose sharply from 75 cents Thursday  morning to $1.60 by 10:30 a.m. Friday, its highest since October 2020.

But by the time many people were taking  their Friday afternoon coffee breaks, the concern from both parties was  revealed to be largely unfounded.

And public health experts and advocates say  in their outrage, both leaders ignored that a safe supply of cocaine  would save lives in B.C.’s toxic drug crisis that has killed more than  11,000 since 2016.

What Adastra’s license allows

Adastra had received an amended dealer’s  license through a Section 56 exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs  and Substances Act granted by Health Canada, according to its Feb. 22  statement.

That exemption is the same mechanism that  allowed North America’s first supervised consumption site, Insite, to  open in Vancouver and for B.C. to decriminalize small amounts of some  drugs for personal use in January. 

Adastra’s amended license allows the company to  produce up to 250 grams of cocaine per year and import coca leaves to  synthesize the substance. It is also allowed to handle up to 1,000 grams  of hallucinogenic psilocybin annually.

Cocaine has some legal uses  including as a topical local anesthetic and to prevent excess bleeding  in some nose and throat surgeries in B.C. and Canada, as authorized by  Health Canada. 

Selling, manufacturing or trafficking cocaine or other illicit drugs remains illegal under B.C.’s decriminalization pilot plan. 

But Adastra’s license does not permit it to  sell or distribute cocaine to the general public, Health Canada  clarified in a statement late Thursday evening. It can only deal with  other licensed facilities, hospitals, pharmacists and research teams  with their own exemptions that include cocaine, a fact the agency  reminded Adastra of Friday morning.

Neither Adastra or the Liberals had  mentioned that key piece of information, until Adastra retracted part of  its previous statement on Friday afternoon.

“The Dealer’s Licence issued to Adastra  Labs does not permit Adastra Labs to sell coca leaf, psilocybin or  cocaine to the general public,” it said. 

Opposition critic for mental health and  addictions Elenore Sturko placed the blame for the misleading  information she and Falcon shared in the legislature on Adastra. 

The new information “doesn’t really change those questions that I have,” Sturko told The Tyee. 

“Companies are clearly starting to  pivot and are indicating they want to profit off of harm reduction and  decriminalization,” she said. “We shouldn’t be getting information about  harm reduction from companies themselves, it should come from  government.”

The Tyee reached out to the premier’s  office but did not hear back by publication time. Multiple interview  requests to Adastra CEO Michael Forbes were not returned.

Health Canada said it fulfilled its  obligations to consult on Adastra’s exemption, which is separate from  the decriminalization exemption granted to B.C.

“Health Canada thoroughly reviews licence  applications to ensure that all the appropriate policies and procedures  are in place to maintain public health and public safety,” read an  emailed statement from a spokesman Friday afternoon.

“If the strict requirements are not being  followed, Health Canada will not hesitate to take action, which may  include revoking the licence.”

Health Canada did not answer Tyee questions  about how many companies or facilities in Canada can legally produce or  sell the cocaine, but noted Gulf Islands-based Sunshine Labs is  permitted to produce and sell small amounts of cocaine, MDMA and  prescription heroin to other licensed facilities as of early January.

Amid the confusion, that company’s Thursday corporate update was also partially retracted and clarified on Friday afternoon. 

‘A total gotcha’

While questions of corporate profit and  transparency are important, drug policy advisor for the City of  Vancouver Karen Ward said the BC Liberals’ failure to verify whether  this would impact the general public rang as disingenuous.

“It was a total gotcha,” she told The Tyee in an interview, noting the confusion benefited Adastra’s bottom-line as well.

But she said the NDP’s response meant both  parties missed a chance to acknowledge new approaches are needed given  that hundreds of people have died from contaminated cocaine in B.C.

“They were like, ‘Oh we’re not talking  about legalizing cocaine!’ Well, why not?” said Ward. “The reaction  really showed their prohibitionist framing of mind on everything.”

B.C.’s prescribed safer supply project and  some federally funded pilot projects have largely focused on replacing  or offering alternatives to opioids like heroin and fentanyl for fewer  than 16,000 people since 2020. 

But a safe supply of cocaine is needed,  said Ward and Dr. Paxton Bach. About five per cent of cocaine samples in  Vancouver are contaminated with fentanyl, according to drug testing  data from the BC Centre for Disease Control.

“I quite regularly see overdoses from  people at St. Paul’s who thought they were taking cocaine,” said Bach,  co-medical director of the BC Centre on Substance Use. “If we truly want  to talk about providing predictable, regulated supply of substances to  separate people from the current volatile supply, we need to expand it  beyond opioids.”

Cocaine, which falls into the stimulant  class of drugs, is highly addictive and long-term use can cause serious  harms to health, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.   

Harm reduction experts argue providing a  predictable, regulated safe supply of drugs will save lives by  separating people from the contaminated and volatile criminalized  supply. In studies of B.C.’s smaller prescribed heroin programs, that  predictability helped participants stabilize their housing, employment, commit fewer survival crimes and improve their overall health. 

Adastra’s licensing offers a strong  domestic supply option should the province move forward with a safe  supply of cocaine in the future, Ward said. Federal rules have hampered domestic  efforts to expand prescription heroin programs in the Lower Mainland,  for example, beyond what can currently be imported from Switzerland. 

Sturko acknowledged the political theatre  of question period doesn’t always lend itself well to delicate  discussions. “We’re not wanting to create an atmosphere of panic, but  it’s important that we continue to press the government for clarity.”

But Bach said elected officials and media  need to be specific to avoid stoking stigma or fear when speaking about  issues of substance use, drug poisonings and decriminalization.

Safe supply and decriminalization are  connected but not the same, as decriminalization is about reducing the  harms of prohibition, not directly addressing the contaminated drug  supply.

“Everyone is being touched by these issues,  so any information that comes out in this area elicits a strong  response,” said Bach. “Stories like these remind us why clarity and  specificity are so important in our discussions right now.”

Ward said the fuss was a missed opportunity  to discuss what a domestic safe supply of cocaine could mean for people  at risk of drug poisoning.

“It’s just so degrading to voters,” said  Ward. “Just have that adult conversation about our drug policies and  what they’ve done, instead of being as reactive as we are being.”

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 07, 2023 at 20:06

This item reprinted with permission from   The Tyee   Vancouver, British Columbia
Comments are Welcome - Leave a reply below - Posts are moderated

Comments are Welcome - Leave a reply below - Posts are moderated