The House resumed from March 2 consideration of the motion that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, it is an honour for me to rise today to join the debate on Bill , an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to enact the expungement of certain drug-related convictions act and the national strategy on substance use act.
The sponsor of this private member's bill is a fellow British Columbian, the member for , and I want to thank him for introducing this legislation. It is very timely because Canada has been struggling with an opioid overdose crisis. It is Canada's other pandemic.
However, there are some stark distinctions. The COVID-19 pandemic will wane. It is waning, and we are seeing it in the rear-view mirror. We have also developed a vaccine to combat COVID-19, and we are developing a community immunity, or a herd immunity, as some people call it. Harm reduction measures for COVID-19 are known, which are simple and generally effective. None of that is true for the opioid crisis.
I would like to read something from the government's own website. It states, “The opioid overdose crisis is worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic with many communities across Canada reporting record numbers of opioid-related deaths, emergency calls and hospitalizations.” The website also points out that there has been a 95% increase, which is almost double, of opioid-related deaths in the first year of the pandemic, moving up to 7,200.
This is a very large number. It is shocking. These are real people and fellow Canadian citizens. These are moms and dads, brothers and sisters. They are people who are loved by friends and family. These are people who have an opioid addiction or substance addiction and have found themselves unfortunately coming into contact with likely fentanyl-laced opioids.
I grieve for a family friend in my riding who, just a little while ago, marked the anniversary of the death of their son to an opioid overdose death. He was loved by his family. He had a lot of friends. He was a popular man. He had a great job. His employer relied on him, and his fellow workers enjoyed working with him. He died at home alone of an alleged opioid overdose. He sadly became part of Canada's statistics.
The sponsor of the private member's bill, as I pointed out, is a fellow British Columbian, so I want to look at some British Columbia statistics when it comes to illicit drug toxicity deaths. The number of these deaths in B.C. equates to about five deaths per day. Every day, five people in British Columbia die of an illicit drug toxicity poisoning. In 2022, 74% of those dying were age 30 to 59, and 77% were male. More than half those deaths occurred at home when the person was alone.
There was a big increase in illicit toxicity deaths since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, although we were seeing a large increase in 2015 when illicit drug toxicity deaths became the number one cause of unnatural deaths in British Columbia. That is going back to 2015. There was already a big uptick. At that time, fentanyl use spiked to become the number one cause of illicit drug toxicity deaths.
We agree that this bill is very timely, and it is a very important discussion. Let us have a closer look at the draft legislation. It will amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to repeal provisions that make it an offence to possess certain substances. It will also enact a new act for the expungement of certain drug-related convictions, as though the conviction never happened. It will also enact the national strategy on substance use act, which would require the to develop a harm reduction strategy.
I want to focus on that last part, the national strategy on substance use. The focus of that, according to the draft legislation, is harm caused by criminalization of substance abuse and not on the substance abuse itself. It would also introduce a low-barrier access to safe supply of addictive and harmful substances, focus on supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention, and focus on reducing stigma associated with substance abuse.
I believe the intent or hope of this legislation is that it would lead to fewer victims of substance abuse. That is a laudable goal, but I am not sure that these are the correct tools. It is my and the Conservative Party's position that we should always focus on recovery and treatment.
If we go back to the proposed national strategy on substance use, it is commendable for promoting universal access to recovery. I would support that. It would focus on relapse prevention programs, which is very supportable, and it would focus on evidence-based prevention programs. Of course, these are all important things, and I would support those initiatives.
In the 2021 federal election, the Conservatives presented a plan that included creating 1,000 drug treatment beds, creating 50 recovery community centres, supporting local and culturally appropriate addiction treatment and partnering with provinces for access to Naloxone. As such, we find some common ground.
However, we think that people should be given the hope of recovery, not just reduced harm, not just safe supply, not just safe injection sites, but real, long-lasting solutions full of hope for a better life. We believe Canada ought to focus on recovery and treatment as our basic framework for dealing with the opioid crisis.
As for the decriminalization of possession, which is part of this private member's bill, I would note that in 2020 the Public Prosecution Service of Canada issued a directive to avoid prosecuting cases of simple possession. That reflects and mirrors what is happening in some European countries, where possession still remains criminal, but police and prosecutors are given instructions not to intervene based on discretionary use of their powers and guidelines. This, I think, gives the criminal justice system the flexibility to treat addiction as a health issue, when and where appropriate, in cases where that is appropriate, but it also retains tools for law enforcement to keep harmful drugs off our streets.
I am on the public safety and national security committee, and we have just come off a study on gun control and illegal arms trafficking, focusing on the increase of gun crimes committed by members of street gangs. In that study, we heard evidence from a number of witnesses that showed us an inextricable link between drug trafficking and arms trafficking. The two go hand in hand.
I have a couple of quotes here from witnesses. The first is from Mitch Bourbonniere, who works in Winnipeg. He said, “Anyone in Winnipeg can purchase a firearm illegally, much the same way as you [can purchase] illegal drugs.”
Here is another quote, from Michael Rowe of the Vancouver police force. In an answer to a question correlating arms smuggling and drug smuggling, he said, “certainly...there's a correlation there that I don't think can be disputed, especially as the manufacturing or sale of fentanyl produces an extremely lucrative drug market. That lucrative drug market typically invites conflict that will then result in gang violence.” There is no doubt that there is a link between drug trafficking and arms trafficking.
I do not believe that removing the personal use of these drugs from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act would solve that problem. Our focus should remain on tackling the source of lethal fentanyl-laced opioids and on those criminals who produce the fentanyl and earn big profits.
Madam Speaker, today I am speaking to Bill . To summarize it in its broadest terms, this bill deals primarily with the decriminalization of simple possession of drugs and is based on three components.
First, the bill sets out the legislative amendments that are relevant to achieving its objective of decriminalization. These include amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code, and the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act. In essence, the intent is to repeal subsection 4(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, as well as those parts of that act, the Criminal Code and the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act that refer to this particular subsection. Subsection 4(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act states, “Except as authorized under the regulations, no person shall possess a substance included in Schedule I, II or III.”
The second part of the bill enacts a new law, the expungement of certain drug-related convictions act. It is a piece of legislation that is meant to be retroactive, in a way, since it seeks to establish a procedure for the Parole Board of Canada to follow to expunge convictions that occurred prior to the coming into force of this bill, if it passes. This part of the bill would wipe the slate clean on past offences. Expunging a conviction means that the convicted person is deemed never to have been charged and convicted of that offence, thus allowing a criminal record to be wiped clean. However, expungement would not happen automatically. The individual would have to apply for expungement, the board would have to review the application to see if it is valid, and then a notice would have to be sent to the RCMP and related departments and agencies to have their records relating to the conviction expunged.
The third and final part of the bill also creates new legislation: the national strategy on substance use act. This new legislation would force the Department of Health to develop a strategy by consulting the community, and it would require the department to report on the results of the implementation of this strategy. Although one of the goals of the strategy is to reduce the criminalization tied to drug use, the third part of the bill proposes that the primary goal be a matter of public health, with an approach that seeks to deal with the harm caused by problematic substance use.
According to Bill , the strategy must be developed in consultation with representatives of the provincial governments responsible for health care services and key stakeholders including advocacy organizations, frontline health care providers, individuals with lived experience of substance use, harm reduction workers and experts in problematic substance use and substance use disorder.
Although the Bloc is generally open to the idea of diverting people struggling with substance abuse away from the courts, we believe that Bill C-216 unfortunately misses the mark with respect to its main objective. Over the past few years, there has been a tendency to consider drug-related problems as public health issues rather than crime issues for several reasons.
We cannot ignore the serious opioid crisis that has taken hold in North America since 2016. It is a serious problem that demands a government response. There was Nixon's tough on drugs approach, which strictly addressed the criminal aspect but never achieved the desired results. There is the positive experience of countries such as Portugal and Switzerland, which adopted a public health approach to issues arising from drug use. We also have a better understanding of problems related to addiction thanks to advances in scientific knowledge in this area.
The problem with Bill in general is that it puts the cart before the horse. The third part of the bill, which deals with a strategy on substance use is likely one of the most important aspects of the bill in that what we really want to do is help people with addictions overcome them. Basically, the main point of the bill is to save lives, given that opioid use has been on the rise since the 1980s. The number of opioid deaths has risen dramatically since 2016. They went from close to 3,000 in 2016 to over 6,000 just four years later in 2020.
The problem with this new bill is the timeline, the order in which the steps are to be taken. When the bill comes into force, the clauses pertaining to the offence of simple possession would take effect immediately, but the national strategy would only be implemented the following year, at the earliest.
While there may be some immediate benefits for some people if this bill is adopted, for example, first-time offenders, the bill would have no short-term impact on people with chronic addiction problems. Most importantly, we have no idea what the national policy will look like or how it will work with the governments of Quebec and the provinces, which are responsible for health care services.
In fact, our fear is that we will fall short of our objective if we only decriminalize simple drug possession for personal use without first making sure that we have health services in order, such as support, treatment and detox measures, especially when there is a rather blatant risk of interference in Quebec's and the provinces' jurisdictions.
In a way, members seem too eager to want to build on Portugal's success to justify Bill , while failing to consider what Portugal has done as a whole. While Portugal's success is widely cited as evidence that decriminalization works, the reality is much more complex.
In Portugal, an individual is generally not sent to prison if the total amount of possession does not exceed personal consumption. The individual could still face criminal sanctions, although such cases are rare. It is important to note that decriminalization is not the only measure contributing to Portugal's success. There are also diversion measures and accompanying services on the ground, such as supervised injection sites, education and reintegration resources.
It is important to understand that Portugal's policy is based on legal alternatives to simple possession of drugs for personal use. When an individual is arrested for simple possession, they are brought to the police station to determine whether the amount of drugs in their possession is below the permitted limits. Their case is then referred to a Commission for Dissuasion of Drug Addiction to assess the risks associated with their drug use. That commission then brings the individual before an expert panel of social workers, health professionals and legal advisors to assess the risks associated with the individual's behaviour. Depending on the risk, the individual is then offered a range of measures, including everything from simple education to drug treatment, fines and community service. In the most serious cases, such as repeat offenders or if other people are put at risk, individuals may be forced into treatment, and if they refuse, they could face criminal sanctions. The main objective is to encourage compliance with treatment or complete abstinence from drug use.
If Bill is passed, there is a concern that even if individuals who use drugs are not criminally charged, they will still run the risk of falling through the cracks because there will be no follow-up or systematic monitoring. That is why I spoke about putting the cart before the horse earlier.
In this context, I believe it would be more prudent to consider a more comprehensive, more holistic approach, somewhat similar to what Quebec is currently doing with the PTTCQ in particular, the Court of Quebec's addiction treatment program. The objective of this program is to help the justice system prevent crimes associated with drug addiction through measures that focus on providing treatment to offenders with drug addictions, rather than systematically treating them as criminals.
Based on what is already permitted under subsection 720(2) of the Criminal Code, the PTTCQ authorizes the court to delay sentencing so that an offender can get clean through court-supervised treatment.
The program also facilitates close collaboration between the court and addiction resources to develop a treatment plan that includes therapeutic, rehabilitation and reintegration components.
I therefore think that, while Bill C‑216 has a laudable objective, it is likely doomed to fail unless we create a framework to support drug addicts before we move forward with decriminalizing simple possession. Without such a framework, there is a risk that people who do not get support will wind up being criminalized regardless, for crimes indirectly connected to their drug problem, such as theft, if they do not have access to programs like PTTCQ, which is not available everywhere. It goes without saying that we cannot successfully decriminalize simple possession without also ensuring that health care resources are available.
In conclusion, I remind members that this is yet another example of how an unconditional increase in health transfers would have a significant impact on the lives of many.
Madam Speaker, this is a difficult conversation to have regarding Bill because of the context that we are debating it in. When I was approaching my speech today and what I was going to say about the bill, my first thoughts were about the incredible number of families that have been touched by this in a most profound way by having lost sons, brothers, fathers, sisters and cousins. It has left a trail of carnage in its wake.
In my riding of Cowichan—Malahat—Langford, many communities have been severely affected. What is really stark is when we look at the statistics. Yesterday, we lost 20 people to this. Today, we are going to lose another 20, and tomorrow another 20. On it will go.
British Columbia, my home province, has been the epicentre of this. In the first three months of this year alone, 548 people died. That is the nature of the street supply of drugs in so many communities across this country. We are just having too many families experience this, and it has been going on for years now. I have been a member of the House since 2015. It was in 2016 that my home province of B.C. declared a provincial health emergency. It seems that every single year that I have been in the House, we have been having the same conversation and publicly lamenting the sheer number of deaths, but we still have not figured out to put in place legislative policy to address it.
Here we are in the year 2022, and we are still talking about this. In the past six years, nearly 25,000 Canadians have died. When does the number reach a point where we become ashamed of the lack of progress that we have made? We are in a legislative chamber. As part of the Parliament of Canada, we can enact the policy to save lives. It is this House that has jurisdiction over the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. It is this House that can legislate the Criminal Code. It is the government that, through federal powers, can help coordinate a strategy to effectively deal with this crisis, but we are still talking about it. Yes, I admit some action has been taken, but the numbers show not nearly enough.
The problem is that the drugs fentanyl and carfentanil, synthetic opioids, have completely changed the game on the ground. We now have a situation, when people go out to buy street drugs, in which it is essentially like playing Russian roulette with their lives. In my riding, I do not have to walk very far down the streets to find illicit drugs. In fact, I could probably purchase illicit drugs more quickly than I could get a prescription filled out. That is how easy it is. When we combine that with the personal trauma that people have suffered, whether physical, emotional or sexual, the multitude of reasons that people use drugs is very wide-ranging.
The fact is that it is still there, and every single day communities such as mine still see paramedics responding to this. They are still bringing out the naloxone kits, trying in vain to revive another life. Even if that person is lucky enough to be revived, they could be suffering from permanent brain injury and be a ward of our health care system for the remainder of their lives. This is where we are at, and we have to keep those people in our hearts when we are talking about this issue.
I was reading in the news from B.C. earlier this month that toxicology testing revealed that 94% of the drug samples in March contained fentanyl or one of its analogs. That is not even Russian roulette anymore. That is actually a guarantee, pretty much, at 94%. People know that if they are going out to buy street drugs, the chance that they have a dose that is going to kill them remains very high.
I serve in our caucus as the public safety critic, and one of my colleagues was referencing a committee study that we did on guns and gang violence. I want to echo his comments, because many of the police officers who appeared before our committee were talking about how the issues of gun violence and the illicit drug trade are so intertwined because of the obscene amounts of money that criminal networks are making with fentanyl and carfentanil.
The street value of those drugs, when they are cut into other substances, has made this a very lucrative market. When that kind of money can be made on the streets, it always leads to conflict, and police officers across the country now tell us that whenever they go on a drug bust, they are almost always finding a massive arsenal of weapons to accompany it. The two cannot be separated from each other.
I posed a question on this to the chief of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Chief Evan Bray. For his organization, he said:
The position on decriminalization with regard to simple possession is trying to understand that putting handcuffs on someone who suffers with an addiction is not going to solve the problems. It's going to temporarily take them out of the stream, but that's all it's going to do. Unless there's a way we can get them the help they need, recidivism is going to happen and they're going to be back in that stream.
That is a summary of the failure of the criminal approach.
Having set the context, let us turn our attention now to Bill , which was introduced by my friend, neighbour and colleague, the hon. member for . I want to recognize that other members of our caucus, such as the member for , have also tried to spearhead legislation in other Parliaments.
I also want to recognize the NDP leader, the member for , because it was back in 2017, during his leadership run for our party, that he first took this very bold policy position. We are now at a point, five years later, where we are actually having a serious conversation about this. Back in 2017, it was a risky position for him to take, and I want to acknowledge his courage in doing that so we could have this conversation today.
Bill would do three main things. It would repeal the personal possession offence in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, something that I believe is necessary to end the criminal stigma attached to possession. It would, as a second part, expunge certain drug-related convictions. The third part, which is of course the really important one, is the enactment of a national strategy on substance use.
I have heard conversations in the House about how we need to focus on treatment. I agree. Treatment is one part of the continuum of care. However, when that subject is brought up, I always respond by saying that we cannot treat a dead person.
All of these measures have to brought into play together. There is no one silver bullet. It is all part of a continuum of care. It is a fact, having spoken to experts on the ground in my riding, that there are people out there who are not yet ready for treatment, and if we were to put them in a treatment program, it would be a complete and total failure because they are not yet at that stage.
There are multiple interventions that need to happen in this, but one of the most important ones is to decriminalize, because we have too many people who, through the fear of criminality, are using alone and dying alone. They are doing so with no member of their family or their friends ever knowing that they were a drug user because they are ashamed to admit it. That is what the stigma does to people. It prevents people from getting the help they need.
This bill comes out of a very clear recommendation from Health Canada's expert task force, but I want to end on this. I implore members of the House and other parties still trying to figure out how they are going to vote on this to please not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Please acknowledge that this is a good idea and that it is worthy of more study. Please vote on June 1 to get this bill to committee so that we can have a wholesome discussion on it and can pave a path forward to get people the real help they need and to save lives.
Madam Speaker, the opioid and toxic drug supply crisis is heartbreaking and has taken a tragic toll on the families, loved ones and communities of those we have lost across Canada. I would like to thank the member for for his advocacy on this critical issue and for prompting this important debate in the House of Commons.
The Government of Canada recognizes that the overdose crisis is one of the most serious public health threats in Canada's recent history. This unprecedented crisis is having devastating effects on people, friends and families, as well as on communities across the country.
Unfortunately, the most recent national data shows that there were 26,690 apparent opioid toxicity deaths between January 2016 and September 2021. Fentanyl and its analogues continue to be the primary causes of the crisis. Up to 86% of accidental apparent opioid toxicity deaths over the first nine months of 2021 are tied to fentanyl.
Our government recognizes that problematic substance use is, first and foremost, a public health issue. Since 2017, our government has moved forward with significant action, investing over $800 million to address the overdose crisis and substance use-related issues. We have improved access to treatment and harm reduction, improved access to a safer supply, reduced regulatory barriers to treatment, strengthened law enforcement, developed educational products and tools for health care providers, as well as the public, and advanced research and surveillance to build the evidence base.
These key investments include $282 million for the substance use and addictions program, which provides grants and contributions to other levels of government and to community organizations in order to address the illegal supply of toxic drugs and substance use issues.
Treatment is an essential way to help people struggling with problematic substance use who want to stop using drugs and live a healthier life. We have invested $200 million over five years, with $40 million ongoing each year, to improve the delivery of culturally adapted substance use treatment and prevention services in first nations communities.
Our government has also provided one-time funding of $150 million to the provinces and territories through the emergency treatment fund in order to improve access to evidence-based treatment services. The provinces and territories are also contributing an amount matching the federal funding beyond the first $250,000.
The evidence clearly shows that harm reduction measures save lives. Since 2017, supervised consumption sites in Canada have received more than 3.3 million visits and reversed almost 35,000 overdoses without a single death at a site. These sites also provide access to supportive and trusted relationships for people who use drugs, including opportunities to access treatment.
These sites made more than 148,000 referrals to social services and health care services. Since January 1, 2016, our government has increased the number of approved supervised consumption sites from one to 38. We also increased access to naloxone, a life-saving medication, including in remote and isolated indigenous communities.
Improving the safe supply will also be critical to saving lives, and we are investing more than $63 million to extend access to a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade alternatives.
Treating addiction as a public health issue means we are also committed to diverting people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and toward supportive and trusted relationships in health and social services.
In December 2021, the introduced Bill an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Among other measures, the bill would have the police and prosecutors consider alternative measures, including diverting individuals to treatment programs, giving a warning or taking no further action, instead of laying charges or prosecuting individuals for simple drug possession.
Our government also facilitated the passage of the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in May 2017.
In August 2020, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada released guidelines for prosecutors indicating that alternatives to criminal prosecution should be considered for simple possession for personal use, unless there are serious aggravating factors.
We also recognize the different approaches that cities, provinces, territories and other organizations are taking to address the opioid crisis, including how they are approaching the potential decriminalization of personal possession in their communities. We continue to work with these partners, many who are pursuing comprehensive, regional decriminalization proposals for their jurisdictions.
The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act generally prohibits such activities, including personal possession of controlled substances, unless those activities have been specifically authorized through regulations or an exemption under the act. Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act gives the minister broad powers to exempt people for controlled substances from the application of any of the provisions of the act for medical or scientific purposes or if otherwise in the public interest. Currently, the federal government is reviewing requests for section 56 exemptions for the decriminalization of simple possession from the Province of British Columbia, the City of Vancouver and Toronto Public Health.
This private member's bill, Bill , proposes to immediately decriminalize personal possession of controlled substances across Canada without addressing the complex issues of implementation. This does raise significant concerns. Decriminalization of the personal possession of illicit drugs at the national level requires a comprehensive and well-thought-out, multi-jurisdictional strategy around implementation. This includes ensuring adequate and appropriate health and social services resources; engagement, additional training and guidance of law enforcement; specific definitions of personal possession; public education and awareness strategies; as well as meaningful consultations with indigenous governments, partners and organizations.
Our government will ensure that these decisions are based on evidence and applied research. In getting this right, effective indicators, data and evaluation will be important to inform our approach going forward.
Other jurisdictions are evaluating evidence-based approaches, and we are working with our partners to find innovative solutions.
The mandate letter of the calls on the minister to advance a comprehensive strategy to address prohibitive substance use in Canada, support efforts to improve public education to reduce stigma, support provinces and territories, work with indigenous communities to provide access to a full range of evidence-based treatment and harm reduction, and create standards for substance use treatment programs.
We know that more must be done, and we will continue to work with the provinces and territories, experts, stakeholders, people with real-life experiences and local communities to put an end to this strategy.
Our government will use all the tools at its disposal to put an end to this public health crisis.
Madam Speaker, I would like to start the debate with this: Dead people do not detox.
I want, in particular, for the Liberal and Conservative members to let that sink in. I want the to know that his excuse that decriminalization is not a silver bullet is a false argument to deflect his lack of courage to take meaningful action to save lives.
Let me be very clear: Overdose deaths are preventable deaths. People are dying from drug poisoning, and it does not have to be this way.
The passage of Bill will save lives. It is within the power of every member of the House to show they value life without judgment and that they want to stop the overdose crisis in their communities. All they to have to do is vote for my colleague's bill, Bill C-216.
It is a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, expunge criminal records related only to minor possession convictions, and work with provinces to find health-centred solutions to end the crisis once and for all. These include ensuring a safer regulated supply of drugs and providing universal access to recovery, treatment and harm reduction services.
The overdose crisis has been wreaking devastation upon families and communities for years. In B.C., the toll has been the heaviest. The year 2021 was the deadliest yet on record for the number of overdose deaths, taking 2,224 lives too early.
Since the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2016 by the provincial medical health officer in B.C., more than 9,410 people have died of illicit drug toxicity. Just last month, there were 165 suspected drug toxicity deaths in British Columbia. That is 5.3 deaths per day, and it has become the leading cause of unnatural death in British Columbia.
In 2018, there were four and a half times more overdose deaths than deaths from motor vehicle crashes, suicides, homicides and prescription drug overdoses combined. Overdose deaths occurred across all walks of life, all age groups and all of the socio-economic spectrum. Parents of judges, doctors and teachers have lost loved ones to the overdose death crisis.
I still recall the heartbreak of a mother whose daughter became ill and needed surgery. Afterwards, her daughter became addicted to opioids due to over-prescribed painkillers. When the doctors stopped the prescription, her daughter turned to street drugs to manage her pain. There was pain and anguish on her face when it was revealed that big pharma hid the addictive nature of opioids.
I cannot imagine the devastation of a parent reeling from the shock that their child, a high school student, died of an overdose. I know too many people in my community who use drugs to help them manage the trauma they have experienced. They are just trying to survive the best they can, but that should not be a death sentence for them. I know too many people who have lost loved ones to the drug poisoning crisis. There have been 9,410 deaths since 2016, with 2,224 occurring last year and 5.3 deaths every day.
These are not just numbers. They are real people: sons, daughters, friends, husbands, mothers and loved ones. That is why we must stop this war on drugs. It has failed dismally and has done more harm than good.
The Liberal government likes to say it believes in science and medical experts. It should believe it when B.C.’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, recommends that the federal government decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use.
The Conservatives like to say they believe in law and order. Well, they should believe the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police when it agrees that addiction is a public health issue and that evidence suggests that decriminalization of simple possession is an effective way to reduce the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use. We cannot arrest our way out of the overdose crisis.
Thirty jurisdictions globally have adopted or are beginning to adopt a shift in drug policy that moves away from criminalizing people who use drugs to one of decriminalization. The Portuguese model has given evidence that, when utilized along with other interventions, including harm reduction, prevention, enforcement and treatment strategies, decriminalization has led to an increase in treatment uptake, a reduction in drug-related deaths, and no increase in drug use.
In May 2021, the City of Vancouver submitted a request for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to Health Canada, requesting urgent action to provide an exemption that would decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the city’s boundaries. One year later, the federal government has still not taken any meaningful action to advance this call for action.
As the Liberals drag their feet on this, with every passing day more people are dying from this overdose crisis. Make no mistake, the cost of inaction is real human lives. It also creates persistent personal, social and structural stigma against addiction, increases risk-taking and is an impediment to public health harm reduction initiatives.
The self-proclaimed feminist should know this: Criminalization causes greater harm to women. Women incarcerated for drug offences in B.C. tend to be younger and often undereducated. They commonly have a diagnosed mental disorder and a history of victimization. Incarcerated women have a higher rate of hepatitis C and HIV infections than men. Many are mothers. Separating children from their mothers is devastating, often resulting in foster care placement. Children with parents in prison are more likely to drop out of school and become involved with the prison system themselves, thus continuing the vicious cycle.
As lawmakers, it is our job to put in place policies that will help break this cycle. That is why I urge every member in this House to support Bill . At least, let us send it to committee so that we could have that vigorous debate and so that we could invite witnesses to come before us to answer some of those questions that I just heard the Liberal parliamentary secretary raise. Even if members do not support this motion or have doubts about it, they should do the right thing by sending it to committee to hear witnesses.
Aside from decriminalization, Bill also calls for the expungement of criminal records that are solely related to minor possession. A criminal record poses often insurmountable barriers for people in finding employment and housing. They should not have to wear that as a noose around their neck. We need to change our laws.
The harms caused by interacting with the criminal justice system and the additional barriers posed by a criminal record throw people into a vicious cycle that often impacts the most vulnerable in our society. That is exactly why the NDP motion also asks the government to work with provinces to develop a strategy informed by health-centred solutions that addresses the root causes of problematic substance use.
To ensure a successful response to the overdose crisis, decriminalization must be complemented by the necessary supports. We can break this cycle today if we can act with courage and compassion.
I ask the government to end the war on drugs and save lives by decriminalizing personal possession now. The NDP motion is calling on the government to do exactly that. There can be no more delays. The time to act is now.
Madam Speaker, it is an honour for me to rise in the House to talk about the important bill introduced by my NDP colleague from , Bill .
COVID-19 took the lives of thousands of Canadians over the past two years, and we have devoted a lot of time and energy to helping those affected by the virus and preventing the loss of even more lives. Meanwhile, another crisis has been happening for years that has not received nearly as much attention.
Today, it is claiming the lives of hundreds of people every month. Thousands of people have died over the past five years because of the opioid crisis and addiction and substance abuse problems. It has been a literal carnage. We need to act quickly and do something about this.
We have here a solution based on science, studies, reports and the opinions of experts. In the House, members who say that they follow the science when they vote and take action must support Bill C-216 because everyone who has been following this issue over the years is telling us that this is the way to go, that this is the first step in saving people's lives. We must absolutely send this bill to committee.
I hear everyone here saying that drug addiction is not a police issue or a legal issue, but a health issue. If members truly believe that, they must support the bill at second reading to send it to parliamentary committee. The committee will improve, enhance and study its clauses as needed and will bring in witnesses and other experts.
I think this is the right thing to do. If members are sincere in saying that this is, above all, a health problem and a public health problem, then we must decriminalize simple possession of drugs.
Two or three weeks ago, my colleague from Courtenay—Alberni came to Montreal. We had the opportunity to visit groups that help people who are in crisis, who have drug problems or who are at risk of dying. We visited the organizations Dopamine and Cactus, and everyone told us that the members of the House need to vote in favour of Bill C‑216. It is the right thing to do. The bill is not perfect, but it is definitely a good step forward. We need this.
My NDP colleague and I came out of the Cactus office and a woman in crisis was lying on the sidewalk with a worker. She looked at us. I guess we must have looked somewhat official. She told us that we need to help these organizations, because they saved her life and do the same for dozens of other people, every day, every week. We need to help organizations like Dopamine and Cactus.
Next, we went to see doctors, social workers and researchers at CHUM who specialize in addiction and substance abuse, all of them women. They told us that this is exactly what they had been asking for for years, that it just makes sense to decriminalize simple possession of drugs and not to use the police or prisons for these people, which deprives them of the help they need. It is true—a prison is not a hospital. It serves other needs, other functions in life.
Maybe social workers should already be prepared, funding should be increased and outreach services should be available, but I think that, as federal lawmakers, our responsibility is to take action where possible right now. If we determine that amending the Criminal Code is the thing to do, those amendments are our responsibility.
In this case, it is the right thing to do. All the international evidence proves it. Everyone on the front lines in Quebec and Canada is asking us to do it. Even if people are unsure or have doubts, they should at least vote for Bill C‑216 in principle so it can go to a parliamentary committee. The committee members can amend it, fix it and improve it as necessary.
However, if members refuse and kill Bill C‑216 right away, that is a sign that they are not listening to people on the front lines and that more people will lose their lives. We will end up back at square one and nothing will happen. More people will die in the streets of Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto.
I think it is our responsibility to be courageous, take that step and vote in favour of Bill C‑216 so it can at least go to committee.
Madam Speaker, at the conclusion of this stage of debate on Bill , I first want to thank the members who have spoken today. Canadians deserve a debate on how to respond to a public health emergency that has been raging for more than six years and has cost more than 27,000 lives. Bill is the first piece of comprehensive legislation aimed at addressing this crisis debated in this House.
With respect to my colleagues here today, I believe who we really need to hear from are the experts in public health and substance use, the people working on the front lines of this crisis, and those with lived and living experience who have been directly affected. Those are the people I have been speaking to since I became the NDP's critic of mental health and harm reduction.
Over the last few months, I have travelled the country to hear how the toxic drug crisis is affecting communities across Canada. What I have heard is that people are frustrated that the government is not doing its job to help Canadians who are struggling. They are angry that politicians do not seem to care about the lives of their loved ones. When COVID-19 hit, the government acted with a sense of urgency and was willing to take bold steps to protect Canadians. It worked rapidly to roll out income supports and to procure enough vaccines for every Canadian.
The government's response to COVID-19 has not been perfect, but it showed a willingness to act and adjust as needed because inaction poses a greater risk, yet, after 27,000 deaths in the overdose epidemic, the government is still talking about pilot programs. It has done consultations and commissioned reports that have seemingly gone unheard. I hope all members will agree that it is time not only to listen but also to act like lives depend on it, because they do.
Last spring, Health Canada commissioned an expert task force to make recommendations on federal drug policy. The task force was composed of people with expertise in mental health and addictions, public health, law enforcement, criminology and harm reduction. The task force also benefited from the lived experience of members of Black and indigenous communities, people who use drugs and those who have lost loved ones due to drug-related deaths. The task force published two reports that convey a very clear message: Canada's drug policies are not working, and they need to change. They are causing irreparable harm to our communities. They are costing huge sums of money, and they are costing lives.
The proposals in Bill reflect the recommendations contained in the expert task force's reports. This bill would work to stop the harms of ineffective drug policies and set Canada on the path to dealing with substance use in a comprehensive and compassionate way. Before members vote on this bill on June 1, I urge them all to read these reports or, at the very least, their recommendations.
My other request today to all members is that, even if they do not agree with the full contents of Bill , please vote in favour of sending it to committee. They need to hear from the experts and the people dealing with the impacts of this crisis and bring amendments to the table.
Senator Gwen Boniface, the former commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, and Senator Vern White, former chief of police for Durham Region and for the City of Ottawa, both support getting this bill to committee. If members are considering voting Bill down at this stage, I ask them to think about what they will tell constituents in six months, twelve months or three years' time. This crisis is continuing to escalate, and every day more Canadians are losing someone they love. How will members explain to them that they did not think it was even worth discussing solutions?
This morning a staff member of mine shared the words she spoke at her brother's funeral after he died of accidental overdose poisoning a week before his 35th birthday. She commented that every day there are Canadians writing speeches for funerals that should not be happening.
In the words she shared was a quote from her brother's favourite poet, Oscar Wilde, who wrote, “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
She went on to say, “I wish Ryan had another chance to build the future he wanted. We are all flawed, and I hope through his memory we can remind the world that every life is beautiful and has value. Everyone deserves compassion and love, even in their darkest times.”
With this bill, we have a chance to send the message that we care about people who are struggling and that we will be there for them. We have a chance to save lives. I urge the House to rise to the occasion.