The federal government is working toward a regulated safe supply of drugs, the addictions minister said Wednesday, as new data showed an increase in overdose deaths in the first three months of this year compared to the same period last year.

“I think that people are right, that we want to be able to get to a place where there is a pharmaceutical-grade, regulated supply of drugs,” said Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett in an interview.

“I think we have to explore all options,” she continued. “But a regulated, safer supply of drugs is what I think we are working towards.

“I think that we are working as quickly as we can, I think we are worried about what’s out there and the role of organized crime, and how do we do this safely.”

The Liberals have been repeatedly accused of failing to take bold actions to combat the crisis. Regulating the drug supply — similar to alcohol, tobacco and cannabis — was the top recommendation last year from the government’s expert task force on substance use, which said that regulation would provide access to safer substances.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reported Wednesday that there were at least 1,833 overdose deaths in the country between January and March. (Data from Manitoba and P.E.I. was unavailable.)

That’s up from 1,722 deaths during the same period in 2021, and 1,018 deaths between January and March 2020. Nearly 31,000 Canadians have lost their lives to overdose deaths since January 2016.

The illicit drug supply in Canada has been tainted for years with powerful opioids like fentanyl, and the health agency reported that toxicity “continues to be a major driver of the crisis.”

The majority of deaths reported so far this year were in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, with males making up 76 per cent of deaths across the country.

It’s “super significant” to hear Bennett now talking about the need to move to a regulated supply of drugs, said Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

“She’s beginning to understand what it will take to give people an alternative to the toxic illegal drug market,” he said.

“I think that’s what we need, is more politicians to say that. It’s patently obvious that we need to address the toxic supply and the only way we’ll do that is to provide an alternative supply. There’s no other way to go on this.”

The executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said she appreciates Bennett now using the word “regulate,” but is concerned a regulated safe supply envisioned by the government would still require a prescription to access, posing a barrier to recreational drug users.

“If you’re a person who enjoys using drugs once in a while, you have the chance of dying of an overdose just as much as someone who uses them every day and is dependent on those drugs,” said Brittany Graham.

A key government task force recommendation was the immediate scaling up of a national safe supply of drugs. The government instead invested $67 million in about 20 safe supply pilot projects — which advocates say still present barriers to many people looking to access drugs due to eligibility criteria and hours of operation.

Bennett said she recognized a recreational drug user likely wouldn’t be able to access such places. “That’s what we are exploring, with the people on the front lines and the people with lived experience,” she said, when asked about scaling up safer supply.

While the task force recommended decriminalization nationwide, Ottawa has opted for a piecemeal approach, waiting for provinces and municipalities to apply for an exemption from personal possession offences in their jurisdictions.

The government has approved an exemption for British Columbia, set to take effect next year, and is considering other applications, including from Toronto. Cabinet and most of the Liberal caucus voted against an NDP bill in June that proposed decriminalization nationwide.

Bennett said the B.C. exemption request had the necessary criteria to meet the objectives of public health and public safety, and said the exemption will also be about “research and evaluation.”

Gord Johns, the NDP mental health and harm reduction critic who proposed the decriminalization bill, said in a statement that Bennett’s words were “encouraging,” but needed to be accompanied by “real, rapid action in order to stop the harms the toxic drug supply is causing on a daily basis.

“New Democrats will keep pushing the Liberals to adopt a comprehensive emergency response to turn the tide on this public health crisis,” he said.

Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant