Mr. Speaker, obviously this is an issue that our hon. colleague from Coquitlam—Port Coquitlam feels strongly about and I stand with him.
I rise in the House today to speak on behalf of private member's Bill C-224, the good Samaritan drug overdose act.
The hard truth is this. If a friend or a loved one suffered a heart attack, none of us in the House would think twice about calling an ambulance. Unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to drug overdoses, many of which result in death because people are simply too afraid to make that call.
In 2015 alone, there were as many as 465 overdoses in British Columbia. As our colleague mentioned, the statistics for January 2016 show 77 deaths alone. That is simply unacceptable.
Witnesses fear that when they pick up the phone, they may be criminally charged for possession. They fear judgment from others. These fears ultimately force the witness to choose between saving a person's life or being arrested and charged. It is time that we recognize that it may not be always in the public's interest to prosecute an individual who picks up the phone and asks for help when someone has overdosed.
There are some who will say that this may encourage drug use or in some way minimize the severity of drug use. Let me be very clear right from the onset. I am not for drug use, nor would I ever promote or advocate for the use of drugs. However, if this bill would give people the courage to pick up the phone and take greater action because they are not afraid, then there is no question that this would benefit the nation. It would save lives.
All members of the House can agree that in our country every life is valued. In fact, the courageous debate and discussion that we have had over the last few days is evidence to that.
If this holds true, considering the number of overdoses occurring in Canada, we also must believe that it is necessary to take every measure possible to protect these vulnerable lives.
In the U.S., accidental overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death. In fact, overdoses now count for more deaths each year than HIV and AIDS, murder, or car accidents. Many of these are preventable if and when emergency assistance is summoned.
With the increasing strength of prescription drugs and the popularity and availability of synthetic party drugs, these statistics will only grow if we do not take action. In fact, we are seeing an emergency in our province of British Columbia.
Action, we have talked a lot about that this week. To be clear, good Samaritan laws do not protect people from arrest for other offences such as selling or trafficking drugs, or driving under the influence of drugs. These policies protect only the caller and overdose victim from arrest, prosecution for simple drug possession, possession of paraphernalia, or being under the influence.
Most deaths and complications occurring from overdoses can be prevented with the appropriate medication and emergency response time. Too often, however, these calls are not made and people are left without the necessary medical assistance. The British Columbia Review Panel found that when a person overdoses, immediate medical intervention is critical to reducing the risk of death or serious injury. Statistics point to the fact that in the case of 15% of youth overdoses, someone expressed concern about the well-being of the individual, yet 911 was never called.
Police routinely attend emergency 911 calls involving suspected overdose. Research indicates that in some cases fear of police involvement may heavily influence a witness's decision to not contact emergency services. The facts are indisputable. Research also suggests that medical attention was attempted in less than half of the young adults who suffered from an overdose.
Fear of criminal charges should not be a barrier to calling 911. Police departments are already aware of this stigma and have attempted to mitigate the perception of fear. The Vancouver Police Department is known to have policies about police attendance when it comes to an overdose. They do not normally attend the calls involving a non-fatal drug overdose unless B.C. Emergency Health Services advises that its assistance is required. The rationale for this is to reduce a potential reluctance that people will have to seek emergency medical intervention when someone is overdosing. When police do not attend an emergency 911 call for a suspected overdose, the health and well-being of that person who requires medical attention remains the paramount focus.
The review also concluded that it would be beneficial for all police agencies to reinforce the message of calling 911 to report people in medical distress in an effort to reduce any perceived barriers to seeking help. Simply put, police recognize the stigma around picking up the phone and they want to fix this. They want us to fix this.
In doing my research for this debate, I spoke to many of my friends in police agencies across Canada. There is overwhelming support for this bill. As a matter of fact, one of my very good friends who has been a police officer for decades said that in his line of work, they develop relationships with people from all walks of life and because of how often they work with them or interact with them, they develop feelings of friendship. They care about their well-being. These relationships truly are the only reason the police can be successful. He said, “Over the years, I have had several of them overdose. Some of them unfortunately are no longer with us.” In almost all of the instances, death could have been avoided by calling for help.”
Police experience human tragedy every day. They do not want to see another case where an individual makes the wrong decision and does not seek emergency care for his or her friend or loved one. I believe everyone is on the same page when it comes to Bill C-224. I hope they are on the same page. It is necessary. It means the difference between life and death.
I recall reading an article in the Toronto Star of a teenager who overdosed and died at the age of 17. The victim was showing signs of distress and overdosed seven hours before being attended to by emergency medical services. There were numerous people there who could have called for help in those seven hours, but no one called 911. Instead, they put him in cold water, then laid him on his side on a bed, assuming that he would wake up and everything would be okay. It was not okay. By the time the paramedics were called in the morning, it was too late. The victim's mother said that had there been a law, she thinks it would be reasonable to think that her son would still be around, would still be alive.
We have stated our support for a bill pertaining to this issue before, suggesting that Health Canada, the government, consider the introduction of federal legislation that would exempt individuals seeking help for themselves or others during overdose situations from criminal prosecution for trafficking and possession of controlled substances. Bill C-224 would accomplish this. This is one way that barriers may be broken down by providing limited immunity for criminal charges.
As I have already stated, every year, far too many lives are being lost to drugs and alcohol, and many more Canadians are injured or disabled as a result of an overdose.
I am a husband. I am a father of four beautiful young adults. I have brothers and I have a sister. Accidental death by overdose has negatively impacted our family also. In 2008, as I was preparing to head overseas to speak at an aviation conference, we received a call that my brother-in-law had been found deceased just a few minutes before the call. My brother-in-law was not a drug user. He was not a criminal, and he did not live a high-risk lifestyle. While all of the facts of his death are still unknown to this day, so many years later, the facts are that he died of an accidental overdose. Whoever was with him at the time chose not to call the police or an ambulance to provide assistance. Rather, they erased all the call history and contacts on his phone, and any evidence of their involvement.
I cannot help but think that if this bill was in place in 2008, my brother-in-law would still be with us today. My mother-in-law and father-in-law would still have their only son. My wife and her sister would still have their little brother. My children would still have their uncle. Our family would still be whole.
I have stood in the House before to say that collectively we can leave a positive legacy. Like countless others, the growing numbers, my brother-in-law did not have to and should not have died. That is why I choose to rise in the House today to speak on behalf of Bill C-224. Through this bill, we have a chance to end the stigma of fear, and choose life instead. If the bill will allow people to pick up the phone and take greater action because they will not be afraid of being charged, there is no question it needs to be adopted.
Once again, we can give individuals a second chance at living. We can restore hope in humanity that might otherwise have been missed. It is our duty as members of Parliament to facilitate change, and this bill is a perfect place to start. Maybe, just maybe, lives will be saved in the process.