Madam Speaker, we will be supporting the bill before us, which would provide an exemption from drug possession charges when someone calls 911 to report an overdose. It is a simple, common-sense, proven policy that will save lives. I thank the member for Coquitlam—Port Coquitlam for bringing the bill forward.
We know all too well how desperately our communities need action to end this crisis. As the member for Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo mentioned, British Columbia's health officer has declared a public health emergency. This is the first time that such emergency powers have been used. The province took this step, because in the first three months of this year, there have been more than 200 deaths from overdoses of fentanyl. At that rate, we could see 700 to 800 British Columbians dead by the end of this year. We are talking about an opiate that is exponentially more powerful than morphine or heroin.
We have seen provincial task forces created and police alerts issued in major cities across Canada. We know that this problem will not go away on its own. Indeed, it could get much worse.
Recently, police in Edmonton seized a shipment of white powder from China before it could be prepared for street sale. Lab testing revealed it to be a substance called W-18, a synthetic opiate that is unimaginably deadly. It is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. To put that in perspective, the amount seized recently in Edmonton, four kilograms, according to public health officials, is enough to kill every person in Alberta 45 times over.
However, this drug is so new that it has not yet been included in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Therefore, it is clear that in the face of such a complex crisis, many things need to be done, and done quickly. Bill C-224 is one essential step, and we must take it without delay.
One study cited by the Pivot Legal Society suggested that most people who witness an overdose do not call 911. Fear of arrest for drug possession is one barrier among many, but it is one that we have the power to lift.
This is a step that many jurisdictions have already taken. In the United States, New Mexico was the first to pass a good Samaritan law in 2007, and 31 states have followed suit. By all accounts, these laws have been successful in reducing the fear of police involvement as a barrier to calling emergency assistance during an overdose.
We need to do more, as well, to ensure that drugs that counteract opiate overdoses are more readily available where they are needed. Naloxone was delisted by Health Canada on March 22. This followed the unanimous recommendation of 130 community groups, health experts, and other groups. However, this still leaves it up to the provinces to ensure broader access.
In B.C., naloxone is now available without a prescription and is in the hands of almost all EMS personnel. In Alberta, more than 500 pharmacies are offering free kits without prescriptions. However, access is not as open in some other provinces, where it is still available only to trained responders, or through a doctor's prescription to friends and family of opiate users. Furthermore, cost and access in rural areas still present barriers to saving lives from overdoses.
There remains a federal role to play in encouraging access to easier forms of dosage, for instance, replacing an injection with a nasal spray. Of course, we must also do more to prevent overdoses by increasing awareness about fentanyl-laced street drugs and by reducing its availability by tackling illegal production.
On the former, I note, for example, the recent initiative by Toronto Public Health to create a simple website, ReportBadDrugsTO.ca, to allow fast, anonymous reports of tainted street drugs so that warnings can be spread immediately to opiate users through community agencies. On the latter, I note the recent introduction in the Senate of Bill S-225 by Senator Vernon White. This bill would add the ingredients of fentanyl to the schedule of controlled precursors in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Together with the provinces we must do more to control the use of highly addictive prescription opioids. These initiatives must be considered as elements of a broader response by all levels of government to a crisis that is overwhelming too many communities.
The bill deserves to be praised in the context of removing the ideological blinders of the previous Conservative government and instead adopting the evidence and public health based approach to drug policy for which New Democrats have long been proud advocates.
I salute here the work of Libby Davies, the former member for Vancouver East, who has been a powerful advocate for harm reduction, public health, and safer communities for many years.
If we are to make this long overdue paradigm shift real it will take much more from the government. We need to see the government's promise to repeal Bill C-2 honoured and to support supervised consumption sites. We need to see a review of criminal justice laws, including mandatory minimum sentences in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. That, as we saw in the Supreme Court just days ago, may not only be costly and ineffective but also unconstitutional.
I know I speak for many communities when I say that this is not an issue that we can afford to leave on the back burner. In communities across Canada, overdoses are an epidemic, and we need action now.
Just last week, the CBC printed an interview with a Winnipeg opiate user named Amanda. She reached out to reporters after a close friend died of an overdose. She said, “I've had 15 contacts on my phone and two of them die in three days. That's scary enough, that says it all.”
There are many things we can do to help Amanda and the thousands of Canadians struggling with addictions and to renew and strengthen the health and safety of the communities they call home. This is one step we can take now, and I believe we should do it without delay.