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UPDATE: B.C. firm walks back talk to commercialize cocaine after drawing Trudeau’s ire

Commercializing decriminalized cocaine ‘not something that this government is looking at’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a Liberal party fundraising event at the Hotel Fort Garry in Winnipeg, Thursday, March 2, 2023. Trudeau says he is “as surprised as” B.C. Premier David Eby is after a firm received Health Canada licence amendments to produce and sell cocaine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

A British Columbia company that received federal approval to produce and sell cocaine has revised its original statement that outlined plans to commercialize the controlled substance.

Adastra Labs issued a clarification Friday that said the Langley, B.C., company is “not currently undertaking any activities with cocaine,” and its amended Controlled Drug and Substances Dealer’s Licence does not permit the firm to sell cocaine to the general public.

Adastra Labs CEO Michael Forbes said in the original statement on Feb. 22 that the company would “evaluate how the commercialization of this substance fits” with the firm’s business model. That reference was removed in the latest statement.

Health Canada approved Adastra Labs’ licence amendment to allow the production, sale and distribution of cocaine on Feb. 17. Under the licence, Adastra cannot produce more than 250 grams of cocaine in 2023.

Scrutiny on the issue began Thursday when B.C. Opposition leader Kevin Falcon brought up Adastra’s original statement on commercialization plans during question period at the provincial legislature.

The issue quickly triggered responses from both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier David Eby.

Trudeau said Friday he was “as surprised as” Eby about Adastra’s plans. He said that the federal government was “working very quickly” with Adastra Labs “to correct the misunderstanding” caused by the company’s statement on commercialization.

Trudeau said Adastra did not have permission to sell cocaine on the “open market,” while Health Canada said the firm could only sell to other licence holders.

“I was as surprised as the premier of British Columbia was to see that a company was talking about selling cocaine on the open market or commercializing it,” he said, adding that Adastra’s licence was “not a permission to sell it commercially or to provide it on an open market.”

Trudeau also said commercializing decriminalized cocaine “is not something that this government is looking at furthering.”

Eby said on Thursday he was “astonished” by Adastra’s plans, and the province had not been notified or consulted by Health Canada on the matter.

The premier saidFridaythat he has spoken to the federal government, and that he is “further disturbed” to hear from Health Canada that Adastra may have “significantly misrepresented the nature of the licence” in an irresponsible manner.

“I find it more than a little bit frustrating that Health Canada is not apparently in line with us in terms of the direction we’re going,” he said. “We need to work together on the toxic drug crisis and our response to it.”

In a written statement, Health Canada says it “thoroughly reviews applications” to ensure licensees follow all existing policies on public health and safety.

“Health Canada has contacted the company to reiterate the very narrow parameters of their licence,” it says regarding Adastra Labs. “If the strict requirements are not being followed, Health Canada will not hesitate to take action, which may include revoking the licence.”

Meanwhile, a second B.C. company says it is now also licensed to produce, sell and distribute cocaine, as well as opium and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.

Victoria’s Sunshine Earth Labs, a biosciences firm that “aims to bring safer supply of drugs to the global market,” said in a news release it obtained an amended Controlled Drug and Substances Dealer’s Licence to include MDMA and cocaine last year.

It said received an amendment to possess, produce, sell and distribute opium and morphine in January.

On Friday, Sunshine Earth also issued a revised statement, saying the company is licensed to conduct activities with these controlled substances “under tight limitations imposed by Health Canada.”

When asked how many other companies have received similar amendments to their licences, Health Canada said it does not share or publish the list of companies who have received licences, nor does it discuss the status of applications for licensing amendments due to safety, security and privacy reasons.

Health Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said it is “not new” to have companies getting licence amendments such as these, and “some companies have had this substance on their licence for 20-plus years.”

B.C.’s drug decriminalization policy went into effect at the end of January, allowing individuals who are 18 and over to possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA without criminal penalties.

The decriminalization is a three-year pilot project and a part of the province’s ongoing effort to stem the overdose death rate, with an average of more than six people dying every day in B.C. last year.

For its part, Sunshine Labs said it “does not engage in promoting or launching safer supply initiatives” and defers the implementation of policy on decriminalized cocaine, opium and MDMA to experts.

But the company also said the elevated overdose death rate in B.C. coincides with public health officials’ reports that the majority of deaths came from occasional, rather than chronic, users.

That means decriminalization may not be enough, Sunshine Labs’ statement says, and points to some experts suggesting providing users with “an opportunity to purchase certified drugs with known levels of purity and quantity” as a way to prevent deaths.

“While this notion may be difficult for some to accept, it represents the rational next step,” the statement said.

Safe-supply drug policy advocates, however, said Health Canada’s decision to issue cocaine-related licences to private companies does little to address the actual issues on the streets.

John Braithwaite, supervisor and former board member at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, or VANDU, said the group saw its own plan for safe supply rejected by the province a few months ago.

To see companies receive licences for substances like cocaine, he said, felt like a “slap in the face” because VANDU does not believe for-profit firms have the drug users’ best interest at heart or an understanding of how their products would affect the community.

“Our plan involves the community,” Braithwaite said. “The Downtown Eastside knows what they want and knows what they need to save lives.”

Adastra Holdings Ltd., Adastra Labs’ holding company, saw its share price on the CSE rise from $0.85 on Thursday morning to $1.33 at closing Friday, a 56.5 per cent increase.

— Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

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