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B.C. premier 'astonished' firm got Health Canada approval to make and sell cocaine

In this Jan. 11, 2013 photo, a coca vendor shows her coca leaves for sale as she waits for clients inside a legal coca leaf market in La Paz, Bolivia. (AP / Juan Karita) In this Jan. 11, 2013 photo, a coca vendor shows her coca leaves for sale as she waits for clients inside a legal coca leaf market in La Paz, Bolivia. (AP / Juan Karita)
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British Columbia Premier David Eby says he is "astonished" that Health Canada has granted a cannabis company the right to possess, produce, sell and distribute cocaine.

Adastra Labs in Langley, B.C., said in a news release that Health Canada gave it approval on Feb. 17 for an amendment under its controlled substance dealer’s licence.

Eby told a news conference on Thursday about funding for overdose prevention and mental health that, "if Health Canada did in fact do this," the federal agency did so without engaging the B.C. government or notifying the province.

The premier said the province will be contacting Health Canada for answers.

"It is not part of our provincial plan," he said, referring to the ongoing effort to stem the overdose death rate, with an average of more than six people dying every day in B.C. in 2022.

Health Canada has not responded to requests for comment.

Decriminalization of up to 2.5 grams of drugs, including cocaine, began in B.C. on Jan. 31, after the federal government approved the exemption as part of a plan to combat the overdose crisis that has killed thousands in the province.

More than 11,000 people have died from illicit overdoses since British Columbia declared a public health emergency in 2016. Deaths soared as the opioid fentanyl became the dominant illicit drug.

Adastra said in the statement the amended licence allows the company to “interact” with up to 250 grams of cocaine and to import coca leaves in order to make and synthesize the substance.

Adastra CEO Michael Forbes said it will evaluate how the commercialization of the substance fits in with its business model in an effort to position itself to support the demand for a safe supply of cocaine.

“Harm reduction is a critically important and mainstream topic, and we are staying at the forefront of drug regulations across the board,” Forbes said. “We proactively pursued the amendment to our Dealer’s License to include cocaine back in December 2022."

The topic of Adastra's licence amendment to include cocaine was broached during question period at the B.C. legislature, where Opposition leader Kevin Falcon criticized the move.

"Cocaine isn't prescribed, it isn't safe, and this is wrong," Falcon said. "Commercializing cocaine as a business opportunity amounts to legalizing cocaine trafficking, full stop."

Kevin Hollett, a spokesman for the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said in a written response that the agency knows "very little" about the exemption granted to Adastra.

Hollett said the B.C. safe supply policy released in July 2021 focused on opioids.

"To my knowledge, prescribed safer supply in BC is focused on opioids, so I’m not clear how this might fit in, if it does at all," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2023.  

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