New legislation to end the criminalization of personal drug use in Canada made it to the floor of the House of Commons last week.
The bill, brought forward by NDP MP for Courtenay—Alberni, Gord Johns, would amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, while enacting the Expungement of Certain Drug-related Convictions Act, as well as a National Strategy on Substance Use Act.
Johns’ bill follows the moves of cities like Toronto and provinces like British Columbia to decriminalize drugs for personal use in their respective jurisdictions. In November 2021, B.C. became the first Canadian province to seek an exemption from criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
The bill had been previously tabled under the 43rd Parliament, before dying on the Order Paper because of what Johns called “an unnecessary election.”
Nearly 25,000 Canadians have died from toxic drug supplies in last 7 years
The New Democrats noted that in 2021, 2,224 people died from toxic drugs in B.C., averaging more than six deaths in the province per day. The number represents a 26 per cent increase from 2020, becoming B.C.’s deadliest year from toxic drug supply.
Nearly 25,000 Canadians have died from toxic drug supplies since 2015, with the NDP noting the number of deaths has increased each year since.
According to the NDP, the bill would “decriminalize drug possession for personal use and expand access to crucial harm reduction, treatment and recovery services.”
The bill went through its first reading just before the House of Commons took a holiday break.
“Canada is dealing with a second health pandemic which is needlessly killing thousands of people. The overdose crisis will not end on its own. It’s clear we need to take a new approach or else thousands more will die,” Johns said in a Wednesday press release.
On the House floor, Johns invoked comments from B.C.’s former medical health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, who called the latest overdose figures “unconscionable” while noting “it is past time for an adult discussion about drug policy.”
“The fact is that because a son, daughter, friend or neighbour is addicted to drugs, or is just a weekend user, should not be a death sentence, because too often it is,” Johns said.
The legislation follows recommendations from an expert task force organized by Health Canada in 2020. The task force focused on five core issues: stigma, disproportionate harms to populations experiencing structural inequity, harms from the illicit drug market, the financial burden on the health and criminal justice systems, and unaddressed underlying conditions.
The task force found “that the criminalization of simple possession causes harm to Canadians and needs to end.”
Johns pointed out that it’s been nearly one year since the City of Vancouver applied to decriminalize personal drug use. In the meantime, hundreds of people have died in Vancouver from drug overdoses.
The task force also recommended that “criminal records from previous offenses related to simple possession [should] be fully expunged.”
The bill, according to Johns, also calls for a national plan “to expand access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services across Canada.”
Johns noted that the plan must include access to a regulated safe supply for users, adding that it’s been nearly 20 years since the first sanctioned supervised consumption site opened in the country.
“Evidence shows that users are not dying from overdoses at safe injection sites,” he said. “In fact, there has not been a single overdose death in any of the safe injection sites in this country.”
“The overdose crisis is not even mentioned in the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of Health, and is given a low priority in his letter to the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions,” Johns said on the House floor. “It was not even in the Speech from the Throne.”
Bill gets Green support, Liberals commit to combating the ‘opioid overdose epidemic’
The two Green Party MPs—Elizabeth May and Mike Morrice—confirmed they will support the bill for what Morrice calls “the simple reason that this bill, if passed, would save lives.”
During the debate, Liberal MP for Yukon, Brendan Hanley, pointed to the first fentanyl fatality in the territory in 2016. Since then, he noted that supervised consumption sites in Canada “have received more than 2.9 million visits and have reversed almost 27,000 overdoses without a single death at a site.”
In a statement, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Carolyn Bennett, told rabble.ca the Liberal government is committed to combating the opioid overdose epidemic, noting the party has invested more than $700 million in community-led harm reduction, treatment and prevention projects since 2017.
Bennett added that Health Canada is currently “reviewing several requests submitted for a s.56 exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs on a case-by-case basis.”
“We are committed to improving safe supply, reducing harms, and using resources to divert people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and towards a health based approach.”