Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says a federal government led by him would sue “big pharma” for $44 billion to recover the costs of the opioid crisis. While on paper this seems like a bold move, the reality is that any lawsuit will be tied up in court for years while thousands more die of overdoses—a situation made worse by Poilievre’s plans to dismantle overdose prevention efforts.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reports 34,455 people died in Canada due to “apparent opioid toxicity” from January 2016 and September 2022, disproportionately affecting men, people between the ages of 20 to 59—i.e., those of prime working age—and Indigenous people. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a surge of opioid-related overdoses due to reduced resources, at a time when pandemic restrictions meant fewer people could access supervised consumption sites. In the first six months of 2022, approximately 20 Canadians died each day from opioid toxicity, compared to 12 per day in 2018.

The Conservative Party’s March 14 statement says a Poilievre government would join an existing class-action lawsuit filed by the B.C. government in 2018 against drug manufacturers and retailers for their role in the opioid crisis. It would also “launch a massive federal lawsuit against big pharma, and their consultants to cover the cost of the epidemic to our border security, courts, the criminal justice system, Indigenous programs, lost federal tax revenue and massively expanded treatment programs.” Poilievre says the total $44 billion claimed includes $3.9 billion for federal health-care costs, $3 billion for federal funds spent on the opioid crisis, $10.2 billion for federal criminal justice system costs, and $27 billion of lost tax revenue.

Poilievre claims this money will go towards treatment and recovery for people struggling with addictions. “We will make sure that all Canadians can access treatment and recovery programs,” he says. This sounds compassionate, but the devil is in the details. What does Poilievre mean by “treatment and recovery”? What he actually means is closing overdose prevention sites and redirecting them towards “deep detox programs”—following the so-called “Alberta model”, which under former premier Jason Kenney meant closing overdose prevention facilities in favour of an “abstinence-based policy”. The main result of this policy in Alberta was to kill more people, as we have previously written:

[Kenney’s “abstinence-based policy”] meant redirecting funds from the existing facilities overwhelmingly to private and for-profit “detox” facilities—especially religious facilities closely linked to the Conservative movement.

This was contrary to the advice of Alberta Health Services, which has publicly supported harm reduction policies and acknowledged that “abstinence is not always a realistic goal for some people.”

Even at the physical level, opioid withdrawal can be “life threatening”, involving cold sweats, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, high blood pressure, rapid heart rates, and seizures.

Predictably, from 2019-2020, as the “Alberta model” was implemented, overdose deaths increased. If introduced federally, there is little reason to expect a different result.

Poilievre’s claim that he will prioritize “treatment and recovery” is hypocritical in the extreme. In addition to supporting the Alberta model that led to more overdose deaths, Poilievre has pledged to “solve” the opioid crisis by ramping up the war on drugs—in his own words, through “strong policing”, “tough sentences”, and harsher laws. Far from solving the crisis, these policies will only exacerbate it.

Criminalization does not dissuade people addicted to opioids from seeking them out, but only pushes them to the black market where testing is difficult and street dealers have a market incentive to increase drug potency. The United States has spent 50 years waging a “war on drugs” based on the same policies Poilievre is advocating. The result has been an abysmal failure, at least for workers and the poor: mass incarceration, particularly among racialized groups; vast resources funnelled towards the forces of state repression; and ongoing drug abuse. The opioid crisis that has killed more than 650,000 Americans continues to rage, with opioid deaths reaching new heights during the pandemic. Those targeted in the existing drug war in Canada tend to be low-level street dealers and users, again disproportionately from racialized and marginalized groups.

What about the biggest opioid dealers, the major drug manufacturers and distributors? Lawsuits have been won against pharmaceutical companies in the past for their role in the opioid epidemic, yet these have not ended the crisis. Consider lawsuits in the United States against pharmaceutical giants such as Purdue Pharma, which produced the drug OxyContin and is owned by the billionaire Sackler family. Purdue made billions of dollars from the deaths of hundreds of thousands of workers, knowingly lying that OxyContin was “addiction-proof” when the company’s own studies proved the opposite. As we wrote about these lawsuits against the Sacklers, the capitalists who created the opioid crisis have countless ways to escape the consequences of their actions through their immense wealth:

The [Sackler] family, with a net worth of $11 billion, has thoroughly exploited all possible legal loopholes to avoid being held responsible. Most recently, they agreed to pay out $6 billion to several states in a civil lawsuit. In exchange, the family could not be held liable for any remaining or future civil lawsuits, leaving them free to live their lives with their remaining billions.

The capitalist courts also can’t fix the underlying problem, which is rooted in the very nature of capitalism. The profit motive drives every aspect of this crisis: from the production, distribution, and prescription of the painkillers; to the backbreaking working conditions giving people chronic pain; to the lack of access to treatment and support for those who become addicted.

Lawsuits take years to work their way through the court system. The B.C.-led 2018 lawsuit took four years to reach a $150-million settlement just with Purdue Pharma Canada. Settlements are still pending for other opioid manufacturers and distributors named in the lawsuit. How many thousands of people died from opioids in that time? How many lives have been devastated—not just those struggling with addiction, but countless friends and families who lost loved ones? We cannot allow more to die while lawsuits languish in the courts. Yet no settlement can change the fact that pharmaceutical companies have enormous financial incentive to encourage opioid use.

Poilievre previously ignored the role played by pharmaceutical giants in manufacturing the opioid epidemic. As a right-wing populist, his aim is to protect capitalism. For that reason, his proposed solutions will maintain all the social ills produced by capitalism, including the opioid crisis. Poilievre would now have us believe he is fighting big pharma. Demagogic attacks on big business are characteristic of right-wing populists, but once in power they always defend the interests of the capitalists.

Should a Poilievre government come to power, his austerity policies will worsen the social causes that drive people to addiction, such as poverty. His call for “less red tape” for businesses means less health and safety protections for workers, who will be at greater risk of injuries that can lead to use of painkillers. The Conservative leader has a long history of attacking workers, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees correctly said that Poilievre’s leadership would be “a disaster for working people in Canada.” In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, workers struggling to pay bills have more incentive than ever to take any drug that will allow them to return to work as quickly as possible. Poilievre’s pledge to dismantle the welfare state will further impoverish those on society’s margins, encouraging drug use as an escape from hardship and degradation.

Poilievre’s proposed lawsuit against big pharma is nothing but smoke and mirrors, designed to create the illusion that he is taking on big corporations to solve the opioid crisis. Lawsuits will not solve the fundamental issues driving the opioid epidemic, but Poilievre’s policies are guaranteed to worsen it. The only way to solve the opioid crisis is to nationalize the pharmaceutical industry and all other medical industries under democratic workers’ control, integrated into a planned socialist economy. By removing the profit motive, painkillers could be developed and distributed based on immediate medical need rather than private profit.

On the basis of workers’ control, improved working conditions would reduce the risk of injury that encourages use of painkillers. A shorter work week and earlier retirement age would prevent many workers from developing chronic pain in the first place. Where capitalist governments leave our crumbling health-care system underfunded and understaffed, a socialist government would massively increase funding for health care and implement truly universal care, free at the point of use. More resources for health care would provide more options for health-care professionals than prescribing opioids, and better treatment for those struggling with addiction.

A planned socialist economy under workers’ control would also allow us to achieve full employment and decent wages for all. We could end the housing crisis by banning evictions, nationalizing big property developers, expropriating empty properties to house the homeless, launching a major program to build social housing, and capping rent at 10 per cent of wages. Removing the threat of poverty and homelessness would greatly alleviate the stressful conditions that encourage and exacerbate drug addiction.

The opioid epidemic is the direct result of capitalism, a system that profits from human misery and exploitation. Those who defend this system can’t resolve its crises.