moved that Bill , an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (evidence-based diversion measures) be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Madam Speaker, before the pandemic, I introduced Bill to decriminalize all drugs for personal possession, and this legislation, Bill as an alternative to create a diversion framework to limit police and prosecutorial discretion in keeping with evidence-based principles.
I was motivated to introduce these bills because of the opioid crisis. As we live through the COVID pandemic and are rightly concerned about how different levels of government are working together to protect us, it is important that we do not forget about the scale of tragedy the opioid crisis has brought to so many families across our country.
From January 2016 to March 2020, there have been 16,364 apparent opioid-related deaths, nearly 11 a day. There have also been over 20,000 opioid-related poisoning and hospitalizations, or 13 per day. Public health officials do not update us every day the way they do with COVID, but perhaps they should. It is a public health crisis, and it is a tragedy.
StatsCan, pre-pandemic, told us that for the first time in 40 years, our life expectancy had stalled. StatsCan said:
Life expectancy at birth did not increase from 2016 to 2017 for either males or females, a first in over four decades. This was largely attributable to the opioid crisis.
We know that the crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. In the words of none other than Health Canada:
At the intersection of these public health crises, people who use substances are likely to experience a number of increased risks.
As we see our government listen to public health experts and respond with emergency measures to address the COVID pandemic, it stands in stark contrast, unfortunately, to the way in which we have handled these opioid-related deaths.
Let me start with quoting some public health experts we have been listening to in the course of the COVID crisis, but that we have failed to heed in the opioid crisis. Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam has called for a societal discussion on decriminalization. B.C.'s public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry published a report called, “Stopping The Harm”, explicitly calling for decriminalization, writing:
There is widespread global recognition that the failed “war on drugs” and the resulting criminalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs has not reduced drug use but instead has increased health harms.
Let me put it more bluntly: our outdated and ineffective laws are killing people. If we embraced evidence-based policies, we would not have a highly toxic illegal drug supply. Again, this is Bonnie Henry speaking through her report:
Substance use occurs on a spectrum, from beneficial (e.g., social activity, cultural practices) to non-problematic (e.g., recreational or occasional use), to problematic...to chronic dependence and addiction....due to the toxicity...there is considerable risk of overdose and overdose death related to illegal drug use in any capacity.
Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa has also published a report that states:
The evidence...strongly support the need to shift to a public health approach to drugs in Canada.
She goes on to call on us, the federal government, to decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use.
The UN and WHO published a joint statement in 2017, calling on countries to put in place guarantees against the discrimination in law, policies and regulations in health, including by reviewing and repealing laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and counter established public health evidence. Again, not my words, their words, “These include laws that criminalize...drug use or possession of drugs for personal use”.
In its report, “Care not Corrections”, the Canadian Mental Health Association writes:
Criminalizing people who use...drugs stigmatizes substance use; it also fosters a climate in which they feel unsafe in accessing life-saving interventions and treatment services, and further marginalizes people living in poverty [or at social disadvantage].
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction has written:
A growing body of evidence suggests that decriminalization is an effective way to mitigate the harms of substance use and the policies and practices used to deal with it, especially those harms associated with criminal justice prosecution for simple possession.
Stepping for a moment outside of the advice of public health experts and looking to those in the justice system, we have the Chief Justice of Ontario, Justice Strathy, as he opened the courts, say this:
There is increasing recognition that we, as a society, need to re-consider how we define “crime” and whether some offences, labelled criminal, should be regarded as health-related matters and addressed therapeutically. In recent months, as opioid deaths have soared, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and many of Canada's chief medical health officers, have suggested that after a century of drug prohibition, we should stop treating the use and simple possession of narcotics as a criminal offence and regard them as public health matters. We need to consider whether these and other social challenges are most effectively addressed outside the courts.
Now, the chief justice referenced our police chiefs, and in July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police wrote its own report calling for decriminalization and evidence-based drug policies, which said, “While law enforcement across Canada exercise their discretion when considering possession charges, such as the presence of harmful behaviour or the availability of treatment services, the application of the law is inconsistent across communities.”
The report continues, “We must adopt new and innovative approaches if we are going to disrupt the current trend of drug overdoses impacting communities across Canada. Merely arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective.”
These are not my words. These are the words of our police chiefs, and the words are “proven to be ineffective.”
The report goes on to say, “Research from other countries who have boldly chosen to take a health rather than an enforcement-based approach to problematic drug use have demonstrated positive results.”
When I spoke to Waterloo Chief of Police, Bryan Larkin, I told him that we absolutely need national action, but if we do not get national action in the immediate term, as a way forward, what if municipalities made the request, whether it was Vancouver or Toronto, to the federal government asking for an exemption? He told me that the police chiefs would support that approach as well. We now have had the City of Vancouver call on the federal government to decriminalize simple possession in its geography. Our federal government should honour and grant that request.
The police chiefs also recognize the international evidence, and it is important to pause for a moment and recognize that international evidence. I will point to Portugal, which decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use in 2000. Since then, it has seen overdose-related deaths go down and drug use stay the same. It has not seen problematic drug use increase in any significant way whatsoever. Importantly, it has seen the number of people seeking treatment increase by 60%.
Not only do we know that this move will address stigma, but the number of people seeking treatment will increase because it would be addressing stigma as well. It would also address the racial injustice in our drug laws.
If one tracks the history of our drugs laws, one knows that they are racist. The report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs goes into some detail about the racist attitudes that underpinned government action to criminalize certain drugs, including a fear, at one time, of Chinese Canadians.
As the Canadian HIV Legal Network has recently written:
For the period 2014 to 2019, police in Canada made more than 540,000 arrests for drug offences; 69% of those were for simple drug possession. Troublingly Black and other racialized communities in Canada are disproportionately charged, prosecuted and incarcerated for drug offences, depriving them of their rights to equality and non-discrimination in the criminal legal system, to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, to security of the person and to the highest attainable standard of health. As the report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System concluded more than two decades ago, “Persons described as black are the most over-represented among prisoners charged with drug offences”....
More simply, we fear different drugs today, because we used to fear different people. While we have shifted the purpose of the law beyond explicit racism and xenophobia, its application continues to represent a racial injustice.
Now, we have seen some government action. We have seen an expansion of safe consumption sites, and we have seen 40 safe consumption sites approved. Very recently, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada updated its guidelines to say very explicitly, “Resort to a criminal prosecution of the possession of a controlled substance...should generally be reserved for the most serious manifestations of the offence” where it is for personal use under section 4 of the CDSA.
Our federal government has implemented pilot projects towards safer supply and has funded pilot projects, including here in our east end at South Riverdale. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to address the opioid crisis through a public health approach, including $150 million in budget 2018 to expand treatment options, and millions more towards a national public education campaign to end the stigma that surrounds people who use drugs. These are unquestionably worthy actions.
We should pause here because we have our federal government spending millions to end the stigma for people who use drugs, but at the same time, we are refusing to remove the criminal sanction that perpetuates that stigma more than any other policy. It is cognitive dissonance in action, and it costs lives.
I will explain what Bill does. To begin, I moved Bill and Bill C-236 at the same time because Bill C-235 simply removes the criminal offence for simple possession. This is in keeping with those public health experts, and the international evidence, who are saying that simple possession for personal use should not be a criminal sanction.
While fully removing drug possession for personal use from the CDSA is my preferred approach, and it certainly has the support of experts, in the end, a private member's bill has one opportunity to move a law forward. It is very important to me that this conversation moves to committee and that we see a change in our law.
To that end, Bill is a more modest change in our law that seeks to address stigma and end the unnecessary criminalization and incarceration of people who use drugs. Ultimately the bill seeks to obtain government support to accomplish those ends.
Very simply, the bill creates an evidence-based diversion framework to ensure that before police officers or prosecutors move forward with laying or pursuing a charge, they must consider whether it is sufficient to give a warning, to refer an individual in need to a public health agency or provider, or pursue alternative measures to incarceration. It was developed in keeping with the model of diversion found in our Youth Criminal Justice Act.
Similar to the new guidelines to prosecutors, it seeks to ensure that police and prosecutorial discretion is exercised with the evidence in mind. If this bill passes, that discretion must be exercised in keeping with a set of guiding principles. I think they are important, so I will simply read them:
(a) problematic substance use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue;
(b) interventions should be founded on evidence-based best practices and should aim to protect the health, dignity and human rights of individuals who use drugs, and to reduce harm to those individuals, their families and their communities;
(c) criminal sanctions imposed in respect of the possession of drugs for personal use can increase the stigma associated with drug use and are not consistent with established public health evidence;
(d) interventions should address the root causes of problematic substance use, including by encouraging measures such as education, treatment, aftercare, rehabilitation and social reintegration; and
(e) judicial resources are more appropriately used in relation to offences that pose a risk to public safety.
The criminalization of drug possession for personal use only harms the very people we want to help. It is not only ineffective, it costs lives. We need a new approach. We need to follow the evidence to save lives.
Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from for tabling the bill and reworking what he previously tabled. This is something, as Conservatives, we are open to discussing.
I do not think there is any question with anybody in the House that the opioid crisis is going to be the number one health issue this country faces in the years to come. Even when COVID is resolved, hopefully when vaccines become available to Canadians in the new year, the ramifications and implications of this pandemic and the impact it has had on Canadians is going to be long-lasting.
We have seen the opioid crisis explode to proportions I do not think any of us could have ever predicted. I look at my own province of Alberta, where the opioid overdose deaths from January to June tripled from the first quarter to the second quarter of last year. The implications of COVID and the resulting growth in the opioid crisis is a challenge that all of us as parliamentarians have to understand. We have to start addressing this with real solutions and real partnerships between the various different levels of government. This is not a partisan issue. All of us in the House want to find a way to help Canadians in their recovery.
We had a doctor from B.C. appear at the Standing Committee on Health on Monday. She talked about the opioid crisis in B.C., and B.C. is now seeing record levels of opioid overdose deaths. B.C. was certainly the epicentre of this crisis, but as my colleague from Atlantic Canada just said, we have seen this spread from one part of the country to the next. There is no segment of our population that is immune to the impacts of the opioid crisis.
I applaud my colleague for bringing this forward and taking the focus off legalizing illicit drugs. I agree with him that this is not what the bill is about. Bill is not about legalizing or decriminalizing illicit drugs. It is about putting a focus on treatment and recovery. Unfortunately, there are some things missing from this private member's bill that I think could be strengthened. If we get this to committee, I hope my colleague is open to some amendments and we can work together to strengthen the bill.
I have to chime in on the comment my colleague made about Conservative provincial governments not supporting recovery and treatment for these addictions. Premier Jason Kenney in Alberta named Jason Luan the minister of mental health and addictions, one of the first provincial governments in Canadian history to have a minister in cabinet dedicated to mental health and addictions. It has funded more than 4,000 new treatment beds in the province of Alberta alone. This is not a Conservative conspiracy in which we do not believe in treatment and recovery. My colleague is way off the mark on that.
As I said, I do not think this is a partisan issue in any way. Every government across the country at every level is struggling to find ways to deal with this with limited resources. One of the problems with my colleague's private member's bill is that it really lacks teeth and accountability.
The bill really highlights what is already happening in many jurisdictions across Canada with most police forces. The Liberal government put out a directive in 2016 asking police forces not to charge and go to the court system for simple possession, and many police forces across the country are following up on that directive. Many officers, if they are pulling someone over with a minimal amount of drugs, are not charging them and not putting them through the legal system. Therefore, what the bill does is try to formalize what is already informal across the country.
The bill does not put enough emphasis, teeth or accountability on the recovery aspect. One of the keys to the bill is that a police officer would have the discretion to allow a person who has not been charged yet to choose between two streams. The officer could take the person to a recovery centre to get treatment, but it would have to be at that person's discretion. If the person refuses, then it would be the end of the discussion. They can still potentially be charged, but there is no accountability or no mandatory option to go to recovery.
I am hoping that my colleague will be open to that amendment so that there would be some teeth and accountability in the bill, which would put the focus on a mandatory recovery and treatment element when it comes to dealing with opioid addiction.
I agree with him that this is a mental health issue, and as I said at the beginning of my speech, I think this is the biggest mental health issue this country has or will ever face. We have to find a solution or put some resources into it. I know my colleague also mentioned the position of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. He is right that the association does support decriminalization of illicit drugs, but with a caveat that he failed to mention.
The caveat is that there have to be resources in provinces for recovery, and in their report they say that does not exist at this time. Therefore, they really do not support decriminalization of all illicit drugs, which, again, the bill does not do, but I think it highlights that the focus needs to be on the recovery aspect, which is missing from the bill. I know my colleague has tried to step back from going all the way to decriminalization and tried to bring this to something that all of us in the House can work on as a starting point, but it still lacks some of those elements that we would like to see. As I said, in reality a lot of these things are already being done by police officers.
The other element that I hope my colleague would be open to is not about the mandatory recovery but about when an officer is having that interaction with a person. They can take notes of how many times they have had this discussion and offered a recovery option to that person, but that is not admissible, should it ever go to court. For example, if I have pulled Joe Smith over and have had this discussion with Joe Smith on multiple occasions, and on multiple occasions I have offered Joe Smith two options, to take it to the criminal justice system or to go to recovery, again the onus is on Joe Smith. If he says no, then that option is no longer viable.
However, I could have had that discussion with Joe Smith 17,000 times and there is no chance for that, but if that element was admissible, should he ever have to go through the justice system, we could say that we have had this discussion on many occasions and we have offered him the opportunity to go to recovery and he has refused over and over again. Therefore, the only option would be a criminal justice pathway. I think that needs to be an element in there.
The other aspect to this is that these drugs are dangerous. There is no question. They are killing Canadians from every walk of life, and I know many of us in the House have had personal relations or experiences with this. I know in my riding I had one first nations community that had 18 fentanyl overdose deaths in one month. I have had too many friends and acquaintances who have lost loved ones, including me: a friend I played senior hockey with for many years. I do not want to have those conversations anymore. There has to be a way to get through this, but there have to be consequences.
I understand that when someone is caught with an amount of drugs that is just for their possession, we can look at the mental health and addiction recovery, but there have to be harsh consequences for those who are peddling these drugs, the dealers who are killing those Canadians. We also have to ensure that there are hard consequences and enough resources to CBSA to ensure that we are not having these drugs, specifically fentanyl, imported into our country. With COVID, we are seeing limitations on travel, but now we are seeing an increase in poison and toxins put into these drugs here at home. There have to be consequences.
In conclusion, I am hoping my colleague will be open to amendments and having this discussion, but as this sits now it will be difficult for us to support without some of those accountability elements and the teeth to ensure focus on a mandatory element to recovery and rehabilitation.
Madam Speaker, this bill is consistent with what is already being done in Quebec.
We see diversion as a good thing. It is understood that living in society implies compliance with a certain number of rules established by society and within a legal framework, and that people who do not obey those rules will be sanctioned. We agree on this point. For instance, someone who traffics in drugs must go through the criminal justice system and, if found guilty, go to prison.
However, we also think that this is not a panacea. Ultimately, what we want is not to put as many people as possible in prison, but to live in a society that respects everyone's rights, somewhere that is a great place to live and where everyone accepts and respects the various rules that we have set for ourselves.
Once again, while some crimes should be severely punished, other offences should be dealt with through a different process. Quebeckers believe strongly in rehabilitation and education for these individuals.
This bill addresses a specific situation in which a police officer arrests someone who is in possession of drugs for personal use and not for the purposes of trafficking.
This is obviously not an ideal situation. Drugs are harmful to those who use them, but also to their families, friends and communities. Drug use is therefore something we want to address.
Instead of sending this person to prison, we would use diversion measures and social reintegration. There are various possibilities. As I was saying, Quebec already does this with young offenders. For example, a young person who commits an offence at a corner store may be sentenced to work at that corner store. If the young person graffitis a wall, they may be sentenced to clean the wall or repaint the inside of the corner store.
The offender will be given a punishment that will teach them a lesson and make them not want to commit the offence again, which is better than ending up in prison as a preventative measure.
Although putting someone in prison for two or three years for a drug-related crime can sometimes convince them to never use drugs again, most of the time, the person is at high risk of reoffending. The person may start to feel victimized, excluded from society and judged. When they are released, they will still have the same bad habits and hang out with the same crowd, which is not good for them.
Instead of sending that person to prison for one, two or three years, we can use alternative forms of punishment designed to help them understand the negative impact of drug use on their own health and that of their partner, children, entire family and community. We may not succeed all the time, but if it works in even 15%, 20% or 30% of cases, it would still be much better than what currently happens. We would improve our society, and we would be taking every possible measure to help these individuals not just to change their behaviour, but to do so of their own volition, after realizing the harmful effects of their previous behaviour.
For these reasons, I believe that this bill should be studied, if only in committee. It will surely need to be amended. I noted earlier that there are problems with the translation, particularly with the proposed new paragraph 10.1(b). The English version says “reduce harm to those individuals”, whereas the French version says “réduire les méfaits”, which is not a good translation, in my view.
There are some small mistakes like that that will need to be fixed, and perhaps some amendments should be made to the substance of the bill. However, one thing is certain, Bill should be studied and passed to improve the lives of everyone we live with in society.
Earlier, members spoke about stigmatization. I will give some examples. Of course a person who spends one, two or three years in prison and then looks for a job when they get out will have to say that they just got out of prison. Obviously, that will not help them get a job. If that person does not find a job, then they will be more likely to look for other sources of income. They will be caught in a vicious circle, and we might end up encouraging what we want to discourage, something we do not want to do.
Obviously there are also health issues. We often talk about drug use, which is illegal. People who use do not use in broad daylight and often hide. They use syringes that have not been disinfected or have been poorly disinfected. They share other paraphernalia for using drugs or they share drugs that might be composed of more harmful substances than they should be.
Some people think that this needs to be regulated, but I believe that we should try to find a way to help these people instead of punishing them. If I had a child or another family member who had a drug problem, I would hope to be able to help them understand the adverse effects and convince them to change their behaviour in order to experience more happiness. I want that for my family and for everyone. I encourage us to vote in favour of Bill C-236.
Madam Speaker, this is a timely debate, as I think all members of Parliament recognize. We are not only in a pandemic, but we are also in an ongoing overdose crisis that has been made even worse by the pandemic. In Canada, we have had over 16,000 overdose deaths since 2016. In my own community on southern Vancouver Island, there have been more than 449 overdose deaths since 2016.
This represents an enormous toll on families in my riding. Families have lost loved ones, be they fathers, mothers, siblings or children. Here is the kicker: on the south island, during this pandemic, the number of deaths from overdoses has nearly doubled this year over last. I know that the same pattern has been occurring across the country.
Without a doubt, there is a pressing need to address the overdose crisis. I acknowledge the member for for trying to suggest ways for the House to grapple with this problem. The bill we have in front of us today is, in fact, one of two bills put on the Order Paper by the member for . As I remarked, I have some trouble understanding why he has chosen this bill, rather than the other bill.
The other bill I am talking about is Bill , which would address the overdose crisis directly by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of prohibited drugs for personal use, thus shifting our response from punishment to harm reduction for addiction: something that is clearly a health problem or a medical condition.
In fact, as I mentioned earlier, the member for just gave a very eloquent speech in support of his other bill, Bill . He laid out all the reasons in his speech for decriminalization. Unfortunately, he has decided to proceed with the other bill, which completely misses the mark as a response to this crisis.
I will come back to the details of Bill in a moment, but first I want to stress how happy New Democrats would be to support his first bill instead. Personally, I have been a supporter of the decriminalization of drugs for decades, including during the whole time I taught criminal justice at the post-secondary level.
I first publicly called for decriminalization as a city counsellor in Esquimalt. When I did this, we were beginning to recognize the extent of the overdose crisis. At that time, some questioned why a city counsellor would be dealing with this question. My answer was simple. When members of our communities are dying unnecessary deaths, deaths that scar our communities, why would we not take the path to reducing these losses when the path is so clear?
Former NDP MP Libby Davies was an early and strong supporter of decriminalization in the House. She made her position very clear in 2013, when the Harper government was seeking to shut down Insite, which at the time was the only safe injection site in Canada.
At the NDP convention in 2018, delegates passed a resolution calling for an end to criminalization of personal possession of drugs. I am proud that my party was the first Canadian party to include decriminalization in our election platform. We desperately need a bill to do this, but Bill is not that bill.
Instead, we have a bill that only proposes alternatives to charging people for possession, something that is, in fact, already the practice in most jurisdictions. To me, it seems to be a waste of the House's time and efforts to focus on something like Bill , and diversion from charges, when the simple solution is to end charging altogether by ending criminalization of personal possession of drugs.
This bill does nothing to help persons struggling with addiction get the help they need without fear of arrest. It is still there. Nor does it touch on the real criminals: those who traffic and profit from the addictions of others in our communities. The absence of federal leadership on this issue has led to repeated pleas for help from mayors and premiers.
This past July, Premier Horgan of British Columbia wrote to the , asking that the government decriminalize personal possession of drugs. Just a few days ago, I spoke with Vancouver mayor and former MP Kennedy Stewart, whose frustration with the lack of federal action on the opioid crisis caused him to strike out on an innovative plan.
He has requested by letter a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize illicit drugs within the City of Vancouver's boundaries so that the city can properly address the public health concerns caused by the opioid crisis. His resolution cites a number of factors in favour of decriminalization. Many of the same ones were mentioned in the speech by the member for .
Mayor Stewart begins by citing the very high number of deaths in Vancouver from overdoses. He also cites how COVID makes the overdose crisis worse by further isolating drug users within the community, by limiting access to harm reduction services and, as we have seen most recently, by the increasing toxicity of the drug supply on the streets.
He cited the support of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. He cited the support of the B.C. provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. He cited the support of organizations such as the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. He also made a final point, which I think is worthy of us noting in the House, that decriminalization is a way to address the overdose crisis, but it is also an important part of any program to address the systemic racism in our justice system.
Why is Bill so weak? It is described as an evidence-based diversion framework. We already have that in practice, as I said, in most jurisdictions. It will do nothing for the person who eventually refuses any of those alternatives because they will still end up charged and will still end up with a criminal record for drug possession.
There are also some technical problems with the bill. I am still a recovering criminal justice instructor. I doubt that the bill could actually be applied in British Columba, Quebec or New Brunswick, because the bill is modelled on the Ontario system, where the police lay charges. In those three provinces, the police do not lay charges. I wonder whether the bill has actually taken into account the reality of British Columbia, Quebec and New Brunswick. I do not think that it has.
The bill seeks to reduce the criminalization of drug users through diversion from charges, something which, again, is already taking place in most jurisdictions. The simple solution is right before our eyes. Here is what New Democrats have been calling for to meet the challenges of this other epidemic. These are measures based on sound, evidence-based health policy. We have five things that we say Canadians need.
Canadians need, right now, a national declaration of a public health emergency on the opioid crisis. Canadians need federal funding and stable funding for overdose prevention sites. Canadians need improved access to treatment on demand for people struggling with addictions. Canadians need an end to the poisoned street supply and access to a safe supply of drugs as a medically regulated alternative to the toxic street drugs offered, most of the time, by organized crime. Canadians need to see an investigation into the role of drug companies and the role they may have played in fuelling the opioid crisis, and they need to see a demand put forward for meaningful financial compensation from those companies that profited off the opioid crisis.
Bill says it used evidence-based measures to come to the conclusion that we need diversion. I would say that is not where it leads us at all. These demands and measures are strongly supported by public health advocates. The police, and all of those who are really interested in public health, say we need decriminalization. The war on drugs has been a clear failure. Instead of stigmatizing and punishing Canadians who are suffering from substance use disorders, it is time for bold and compassionate leadership from the federal government.
While the overdose crisis strikes at all Canadian families, a response that meets the needs of our most marginalized communities is urgently required. The fact that we are dealing with a private member's bill on this topic, and the fact that we have no government bill or government response to the opioid crisis, tells us a lot. We need a bill. The member for gave an eloquent speech tonight, just as I said, in support of the wrong bill. It is his other bill we need to be dealing with.
Bill is not the bill that Canadians need. New Democrats will not be supporting a bill that does little or nothing to address the opioid crisis. We need bold action now but, unfortunately, there is no bold action in Bill C-236. Bill C-236, as I said, will actually take up time in the House we could use more productively to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in this country.
Madam Speaker, it is a great privilege and honour tonight to have both seconded Bill and speak to it.
I want to thank the member for for his tremendous work on this bill and for prompting the House to take steps to save lives. It is not often we as members of Parliament get to do things that will save lives. I think that is what this bill, once it becomes law, will do.
I would not agree with the previous speaker. I think when one wants to make a difference in Canada, sometimes we do it incrementally, one step at a time. I think this bill is important for us to look at ways in which we can address the situation, not finish addressing it, but continue addressing it. In short, it is time to develop a health-focused approach to substance abuse to end the stigma against drug users. It is time to move the problem of addictions and substance abuse out of the criminal justice system and into the health care system. It is time to give Canadians, who find themselves in trouble due to their addictions and, yes, sometimes due to their bad choices, an off-ramp so they can get the help they need rather than sinking deeper into despair or death.
As a United Church minister working with families for a quarter of a century, I came to the conclusion that our approach to illegal drugs in Canada is not working. It causes more harm than good and needs to be changed. This bill is a modest attempt at doing that, a first step to see if diverting people from the criminal justice system to the health system will make a positive difference. My instinct is it will. That is why I am pleased to support it. I would encourage all people to support it and not let perfection get in the way of doing good.
It is a simple state of fact that the use of illegal drugs in Canada persists, despite laws, police activity, criminal prosecutions and incarcerations. Making criminals out of people who use these substances is not working. It is time to rethink our approach. This bill amending the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which engages evidence-based diversion measures, is a smart, modest first step in the right direction.
The concern is real. As we have already heard tonight, the B.C. coroner's service recently reported 162 people died of illicit drug overdoses in British Columbia last month, an average of about five overdose deaths per day. This year, in my own city of Toronto, we are on track for over 450 opioid overdose deaths, up from about 300 in each of the last two years. In October alone, Toronto set an all-time record for persons killed by overdose in one month.
The opioid crisis has killed over 16,000 Canadians since 2016. COVID-19 is critically worsening the opioid overdose crisis, a pandemic driving an epidemic.
In 2020, Ontario is hurtling toward 2,271 opioid deaths compared to 1,500 in 2019. Those are real people dying, with real lives, dreams and aspirations. Families, loved ones and friends are being crushed by this loss.
In 2017, I was approached by the indomitable Angie Hamilton and Louise White of Families for Addiction Recovery. Their organization works to help parents and families who are on the front lines of addiction. Their personal stories and those they shared with me from families across Canada inspired me to learn more about the subject. With their help, I organized a round table with 25 experts, including health care workers, medical practitioners, lawyers, academics, and representatives from law enforcement and community groups. I followed this up with a town hall, a meeting for the Don Valley West community, and then a meeting with my constituency youth council asking for their advice on this pressing issue. The verdict was unanimous. The current system is not working. Health care professionals, law enforcement officials, public policy experts, youth and families have asked for significant changes. They want many things. They want more resources and on-demand treatment. They want to erase stigma. Primarily, they want an evidence-based, medically focused approach to addictions and drug use in Canada.
This was confirmed very recently at a town hall I held virtually on this subject in my riding. This bill is a step in the right direction, giving opportunities to people whose lives are at risk.
At every discussion I have had with experts, stakeholders and community members, the message has been loud and clear: An alternative approach, a public health approach, is required and that is why I am supporting my colleague, the member for , with this bill.
Our current system is not reducing illegal psychoactive substance use. It results in stigmatization and reduces opportunities for recovery. It ostracizes people who need help the most. It hurts those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum and it puts up barriers to social engagement, employment and housing. As we have heard, it targets racialized communities.
The alternative to criminalization is a public health approach. I want to be clear: Bill would not decriminalize drug possession for personal use. That may be a goal or it may not be a goal; it is for some, it is not for others. This bill is a step forward, with a view to obtain widespread support from both sides of this House so that we can make a gradual, thoughtful change to the law and make a difference in people's lives.
What this bill would do is create an evidence-based diversion framework to ensure that before police officers or prosecutors, depending on the jurisdiction, move forward with laying or pursuing a charge they must consider whether it is sufficient to give a warning, to refer an individual in need to a public health agency or provider, or to pursue alternative measures to incarceration.
We have many examples of good diversion projects in this country. The bill would provide in law an opportunity to use common sense to give law enforcement officers and prosecutors a legal framework to do what, in some cases, they are already doing, but in all cases what I know they want to do: to send people who are in trouble toward those who can help them. It takes drug use seriously, it takes evidence into account and it puts people first.
I repeat. This bill does not go far enough for some, it may go too far for others. It does not decriminalize drugs, but it is an encouragement to move to treatment instead of criminal prosecution, getting people a chance to have an off-ramp, a chance to get into the health system where they can get the help they need. It would give police, prosecutors and judges an option to recommend treatment over criminal charges if the circumstances warrant.
I want to mention that I have been involved in diversion projects in the past. When I was living in Whitehorse, I worked with the RCMP on their diversion projects.
One particular case I remember is a break-in that happened at Whitehorse United Church, my church. It was just after Christmas, and the church had been broken into. Someone had come in and vandalized it, but had particularly stolen the baby Jesus out of the crèche at the front of the church. The police came and asked me what was stolen, and I said, “Jesus was stolen”. They asked if I could describe Jesus. I said that it might be a matter of faith or theology, but that the Jesus that was stolen from our church was a small plastic Jesus that was in the crèche.
The police found the perpetrator. I was invited to a diversion opportunity and I worked with this young man. I helped this kid get the help he needed to make sure that he did not continue to steal objects from churches. As recently as a year ago, I had a report that it is working. Diversion away from criminal justice formal systems and away from incarceration has a proven track record in Canada.
In the name of Jesus, I would say tonight that I urge members of this House to get this bill to committee where it can be discussed, and amended if needed and where members can offer their experience, their advice and their ideas and get thoughtful advice from experts in the field, where it can be examined and be seen as a modest response to a terrible tragedy, taking steps toward the healing of all people. Let us get together. This is a public health emergency. We have the chance to do something small that will make a real difference.
It is an honour to be here tonight. I hope all members will consider supporting this extremely important bill.