Health-based Approach to Substance Use Act

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

Sponsor

Gord Johns  NDP

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)

Status

Defeated, as of June 1, 2022

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Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, an excellent resource from the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Votes

June 1, 2022 Failed 2nd reading of Bill C-216, 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

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 5:45 p.m.
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NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

moved that Bill C-216, 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, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Madam Speaker, it is a huge honour to draw third in the order of precedence this Parliament to be able to move such an important piece of legislation. It is emotional for me because this is such an important bill. It is Bill C-216, a health-based approach to substance use act.

I want to thank my deputy House critic for the NDP from Port Moody—Coquitlam for seconding the bill. The bill is not new. It was originally moved by the member for Vancouver Kingsway in the 43rd Parliament, but it died on the Order Paper because of an unnecessary election.

Its time has come, and we cannot delay any more. We are using this as the third bill to debate in the House because lives are at stake. We know this from the same public health experts who asked us to follow the science at the beginning of the pandemic. We know this from provincial coroners' reports, which tell the story with statistical evidence of record-breaking numbers of overdose deaths in our cities, our towns and our rural communities.

We know the time has come to debate these measures when Canada's police chiefs and the municipal governments of our largest cities are supporting the decriminalization of the possession of illicit drugs for personal use and the provision of access to a safe, regulated supply of drugs for users.

We know the time has come from the families and loved ones of so many victims of drug poisoning and from the heartbreaking stories the media reports about their pain. Each of us in the House, every one of us, knows all too well the time has come for common sense reforms of Canada's drug laws because of the phone calls we receive from our constituents, from moms and dads, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbours, about overdose deaths caused by drug poisoning. They tell us the time has come to act on the decriminalization of simple possession and for the provision of a safe, regulated supply of substances. They are all asking us to save lives.

As the former provincial medical health officer from my home province of British Columbia, Dr. Perry Kendall, said recently, the latest figures are “unconscionable” and “it is past time for an adult discussion about drug policy.” The bill is the healthiest approach to substance use, and the debate is about having that adult discussion, which has not taken place in the history of this House.

We know from the evidence that the so-called war on drugs has not worked over the past many decades. As the frontline workers fighting to save lives on the streets of our towns and cities remind us, it has not been so much a war on drugs, but it has been and continues to be a war on drug users.

The fact is that because a son, daughter, friend or neighbour is addicted to drugs, or is just a weekend user, should not be a death sentence, because too often it is. They are sentenced to death by drugs poisoned with fentanyl and other dangerous substances by organized crime seeking to maximize profits. In fact, fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. Its orders of magnitude show it is cheaper to traffic than other drugs, which creates a huge economic incentive, at the cost of lives. A few grains of fentanyl can cause overdose and death.

I know there is support in this Parliament for the measures proposed in the bill from many members and from many parties, and I am grateful for that support. I am especially grateful for that of my own party, which has been behind this the whole way. We may not all agree on the same specific actions required, but we all want to stop the harm.

In 2020, Health Canada asked 18 experts in the field of substance use and addictions to come together as an expert task force on substance use and consider alternatives to criminal penalties for the simple possession of illicit drugs. The government promised it would be informed by this task force in its policy making going forward. In fact, it became a campaign promise. The expert task force was mindful of five core issues: stigma, disproportionate harms to populations experiencing structural inequity, harms from the illicit drug market, the financial burden on the health and criminal justice systems, and unaddressed underlying conditions.

In May 2021, we heard from these experts and were informed by their near-unanimous recommendations. Not surprisingly, their recommendations mirror the measures proposed in this bill today for a truly health-based approach to substance use. In the same way that we listen to the advice of public health professionals in dealing with COVID-19 and the pandemic, we must listen to these experts about the overdose crisis, which is killing increasing numbers of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

First, “the Task Force found that the criminalization of simple possession causes harms to Canadians and needs to end.” These are not my words. They come from this body of esteemed experts gathered together by the government to guide the actions intended to save lives. I am going to repeat that: “The Task Force found that criminalization of simple possession causes harms to Canadians and needs to end.” This is a human rights issue.

It has been more than 10 months, and hundreds and hundreds of deaths, since the City of Vancouver applied for section 56 decriminalization exemption with the support of its medical health officer and its chief of police. This is the exact same process Vancouver used to get the first supervised consumption site almost 20 years ago. The federal government of the day backed the City against provincial opposition, as the need was so dire. This took courage and political will. The need is more dire today. We all know this. However, for whatever reason, the Vancouver application, now joined by applications from British Columbia and the City of Toronto, sits on the minister's desk.

Second, the government was informed by its own expert task force that it recommends:

As part of decriminalization...criminal records from previous offenses related to simple possession be fully expunged. This should be complete deletion, automatic, and cost-free.

It is right in the report. This bill calls for full expungement of conviction for simple possession. It is time to relieve Canadians of this unnecessary burden. Why? Because those Canadians who are burdened with records of criminal conviction for simple possession of illicit substances face often insurmountable barriers to employment, housing, child custody and travel.

Third, this bill calls for a national plan: a strategy to expand access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services across Canada. Importantly, this must include ensuring access to a regulated safe supply for users. Instead of leaving the drug supply to gangs driven to maximize profits at the expense of lives, we must support the domestic production and regulation of a safer supply that is readily available and accessible to users.

It has been almost two decades since the first sanctioned supervised consumption site opened. It has been another decade since the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that it must remain open, yet there are still only a few dozen in the entire country. Why are there so few? Why is there such limited access for those who need the service? I submit that it is because of a continued stigma against and criminalization of drug users.

Unfortunately, as these common-sense reforms are advanced on a daily basis by public health professionals, law enforcement, the media, frontline workers, and substance users and their families, they have been given very little attention by the current government. It has been six years. The overdose crisis is not even mentioned in the Prime Minister's mandate letter to the Minister of Health, and is given a low priority in his letter to the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. It was not even in the Speech from the Throne.

This crisis must be treated with urgency. It is a health emergency. Slow-walking essential reforms through a protracted political and bureaucratic deliberation, or worse, ignoring them altogether, will only result in more preventable deaths. We all want lives to be saved, so let us take the politics out of the overdose and toxic drug-supply crisis.

Indigenous people are disproportionately affected, and we must work with them in partnership on the implementation of a health-based approach. Frontline workers struggling day in and day out to save lives must also be partners in implementing a health-based approach. Public health professionals and law enforcement must be engaged along with territorial, provincial and municipal governments.

In summary, I ask that consideration be made of the three essential measures proposed in this bill.

First, that the stigma of substance use be addressed by repealing the provision in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that makes it an offence to personally possess certain substances.

Second, that barriers to employment, housing and other essentials of life be removed for Canadians with certain drug-related convictions through the destruction or removal of the judicial records of those convictions that are in federal systems.

Third, and finally, that a health-based approach to substance use be created through a national strategy on substance use act, which would require the Minister of Health to address the harm caused by problematic substance use. A national strategy should include, but not be limited by, access to a safe, regulated supply of substances for users, universal access to recovery, trauma-based treatment, harm reduction services, prevention programs, outreach and public awareness programs.

None of the above should cause this government to delay further the approval of applications by British Columbia, and the cities of Vancouver and Toronto, for section 56 decriminalization exemptions. Unfortunately, ministers and their officials continue to hem and haw about the differences between the applications as they pertain to the threshold of quantities that are possessed. This should not be an excuse for delaying our movement as a nation towards decriminalization.

Similarly, with the expansion of safe injection sites and the provision of safe drugs under existing laws, we cannot let this debate and the legislative and regulatory actions that must follow delay or defer providing access to a safe supply. Evidence shows that users are not dying from overdoses at safe injection sites, where they exist. In fact, there has not been a single overdose death in any of the safe injection sites in this country. Not one. There has not been a single overdose death. We learn from this that a regulated safer supply will save lives. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, this bill, which is a health-based approach to substance use, aims to save lives.

The Public Health Agency of Canada projects that we will lose at least another 3,000 Canadians just in the first half of this year alone. This is not just a statistic. It is a tragedy, this enormous loss of life. Of course, in the stories of the families who have just lost loved ones to illicit drug poisoning, we know from the evidence and from the advice of public health experts that these deaths could have been prevented.

Who are they? Seventy-five per cent of the deaths are men, with the majority of people between the ages of 20 and 49. Indigenous people are especially at high risk in our country. In B.C., my own province, first nations people died of an overdose at a rate 5.3 times that of other residents in 2020. Most are economically vulnerable. Only a quarter of the men, and a third of the women, had some level of employment. For those who were employed, most were concentrated in the trades and other physically demanding occupations that are also more prone to high rates of injury and unmanaged pain. These people are dying alone. In Ontario, 75% of fatal overdoses in 2021 occurred when no one was present to intervene. In B.C, 83% of overdose deaths occurred inside, and more than half were in private residences.

We know from the Public Health Agency of Canada that, without significant interventions, the rate of deaths and harms will worsen and altering the course of the overdose crisis will become even more challenging. Over the past six years, we have lost over 25,000 lives and Canada still does not have a strategy. We know from coroners' reports, frontline workers and users that people are dying from drugs that are, for the most part, poisoned with fentanyl and other chemicals to maximize the profits of organized crime.

Some people are addicted to illicit drugs, and many are not. They are occasional users seeking relief from the pain of past trauma or the challenges of everyday life. I know that some members will say the emphasis of our approach should be limited to providing treatment for addiction. While trauma-based treatment leading to recovery from an addiction is an important component of a health-based approach to substance use, we must stop the harm first. As the member for Vancouver East told the House last month, dead people don’t need treatment.

My thanks to all of my colleagues in the House for their consideration of this very important bill. I look forward to their comments, their ideas and their questions.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6 p.m.
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Sherbrooke Québec

Liberal

Élisabeth Brière LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health

Madam Speaker, I sincerely thank my colleague from Courtenay—Alberni for his speech.

Clearly, this crisis has already taken too many lives. We understand that action is urgently needed, and that is why we made it a priority.

I would like to ask the member this. Does he agree that moving in this direction requires addressing fundamental issues, including working with partners to establish appropriate thresholds to define possession and ensure other supports are in place?

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6 p.m.
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NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Madam Speaker, I do believe we need to work together, and I look forward to working with my colleague.

When we talk about thresholds, the concern is that if they are too low they exclude people. They also incentivize people who use drugs to use them more. Typically, thresholds exclude the people who use drugs the most. That is a concern, of course.

When I think about the quantity of substances, I try to relate it to quantities of lives, because the lower the threshold, the fewer lives we save. The higher the threshold, the more lives we save. In Canadian case law right now, the way the laws are enforced is not based on thresholds. It is about action.

It is something we need to talk about and look at. Again, my colleague and members should consider that the lower the threshold, the fewer people's lives we save. We are here to save lives. We are here to protect Canadians.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6 p.m.
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Bloc

Jean-Denis Garon Bloc Mirabel, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague for his bill.

It is important that we take a health-based approach. That is obviously the Quebec government's approach. However, we know very well that this approach cannot be funded through good intentions alone.

I would like to know exactly which section of the bill proposes to increase unconditional health transfers to the provinces so that the Canada health transfer covers 35% of provincial system costs.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6 p.m.
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NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for always pushing really hard to increase health transfers to provinces, which is so important because we know the system is underfunded. People need immediate access to treatment. They cannot get that right now. Regarding the amount of money that has been spent, when we compare COVID-19 with the overdose crisis, the stigma is there. It is pretty clear.

It requires significant investment, but a strategy is critical to ensuring provincial and territorial governments are part of that conversation and are partners in delivering the protection needed to stop the deaths of people due to a poisoned drug supply. Absolutely, it needs robust investment, but it needs to also be treated fairly. There have been 25,000 people who have died from a poisoned drug supply in six years. The stigma is clear in the amount of money the government has invested in this crisis and health emergency.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6 p.m.
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Green

Mike Morrice Green Kitchener Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I want to thank the member for Courtenay—Alberni for his leadership with this bill. I want him to know the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands and I will both be supporting this for the simple reason that this bill, if passed, would save lives.

In the Waterloo region alone, there were 155 preventable deaths last year. This bill follows the recommendations we already have from the expert task force on substance use. This bill follows through on the talk in this House recognizing that the poisoning crisis is not a criminal justice issue but one of public health.

I would like to ask him about the importance of low-barrier access to safe supply, which is part of the national strategy called for in this bill.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6 p.m.
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NDP

Gord Johns NDP Courtenay—Alberni, BC

Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for supporting this bill. I am disappointed I am not getting a question from the Conservative Party today on such a critical issue, because people are dying. If we do not take action and we continue on the path we are going down, it is a death sentence for drug users.

I have to say that the status quo is not working. Ideology cannot get in the way of expert and professional advice and evidence-based decision-making. This bill is based on that.

In terms of a safe supply, right now we know that 69% of drugs on the street are actually tainted with fentanyl. That has gone up from 29% just five years ago. We need to tackle this issue. People who use drugs need a safe supply. It should not be a death sentence when they use drugs.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6:05 p.m.
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Liberal

Brendan Hanley Liberal Yukon, YT

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise this evening to speak in support of this bill presented by my colleague, the hon. member for Courtenay—Alberni.

I thank the member for his dedication and leadership on this issue. While we have recently met, I know he has long been an advocate for individuals struggling with mental health and addictions. I would very much like to take a moment to thank him.

These are issues very important to me as well. In our own way, each of us has worked for a number of years, raising awareness and striving to address the toxic drug crisis, he in the chamber and me in my former role as chief medical officer of health for Yukon. I was serving as Yukon's CMOH back in 2016 when the first fentanyl fatality occurred in the territory. Since then, Canada has lost more than 26,000 people to overdoses. Untold numbers of Canadians have had their lives dramatically changed forever due to the untimely and preventable loss of loved ones.

My territory of the Yukon currently has the highest per capita mortality rate for toxic drug overdoses among the provinces and territories. I cannot overstate how this has affected every single member of my riding, but we know this is a problem that belongs to all of Canada.

As CMOH of Yukon, I worked with the Yukon government, first nations and community partners to introduce improvements in prevention, clinical care, access to treatment, education and harm reduction. I am pleased that the Liberal government, of which I am a proud member, has stepped up to address this toxic drug crisis. I know that without the multiple arrays of federal supports, we would not have had the successes in Yukon that we have had to date.

The hon. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions has already demonstrated strong leadership in this new ministry. The government already recognizes that problematic substance use is, first and foremost, a public health issue. We are working to divert people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and toward supportive and trusted relationships.

We have a multi-faceted approach building on previous action, including investments of over $700 million in community-led harm reduction, treatment and prevention projects, which are so important. Importantly, we have also received section 56 exemption requests from B.C., Vancouver and Toronto Public Health, and they are being reviewed on an urgent basis. The government has invested over $60 million to expand access to a safe supply of prescription opioids and increase access to life-saving naloxone across the county, including in remote and isolated indigenous communities.

Since 2017, supervised consumption sites in Canada have received more than 2.9 million visits and have reversed almost 27,000 overdoses without a single death at a site. We are investing $425 million annually for community-based services to address the mental wellness needs of first nations and Inuit peoples. Our government is clear that we will use every tool at our disposal to end this national public health crisis.

Whether in Yukon or in any other location in Canada, though, there is more we can do. There is more that we should do.

Part of this is expanding and building on what we are already achieving across the country. Currently, there are effective practices in place that can be scaled up and shared.

In addition, it is time that we formally consider decriminalization as a national policy. Decriminalization, simply put, means that we would no longer be considering simple possession of narcotic drugs and other controlled substances to be a criminal act. Rather, such possession speaks to a health issue that must be treated as a health issue.

It is important to say what this is not. Those who commit serious offences, including trafficking, will continue to receive serious sentences.

This bill would amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to repeal a provision that makes it an offence to possess certain substances and make consequential amendments to other acts. In addition, it would enact the expungement of certain drug-related convictions act, which establishes a procedure for expunging certain drug-related convictions and provides for the destruction or removal of the judicial records of those convictions that are in federal repositories and systems. Finally, it would enact the national strategy on substance use act, which would require the Minister of Health to develop a national strategy to address the harm caused by problematic substance use.

The hon. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions was correct when she said that decriminalization on its own, with a toxic drug supply, will not save the lives that we need to. The key words here are “on its own”. The important step of decriminalization must be in step with all the other components, building on the work done over the previous years by all levels of government on safe supply, on education and reducing stigmatization, on access to treatment and on better clinical management.

We need to provide better training for frontline workers responding to these crises and perhaps need to consider education and training for other community members, particularly for isolated communities. Safe supply, supervised consumption, better access to treatment, effective prevention and decriminalization are all approaches that, combined, can help prevent more deaths.

As we know, B.C., Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto are all calling for the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. The country’s largest mental health teaching hospital, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, is also pressing for it, and we know it is a position shared by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. It is also the position of the Canadian Medical Association and, in my riding, the Yukon Medical Association.

In addition to all that the government has done to address this crisis in recent years, we need an approach that will consider a broader approach to the issue, including decriminalization. These are critical discussions we must have, which is why I am happy to speak to my colleague’s bill, support it and help it get to committee. It is the direction we need to move in, and I look forward to working on it with members of the House.

To move forward, we need to speak passionately, show compassion and make sure we are doing all we can to get the evidence across as clearly as possible. Our decisions in this House should always put doing what is right for Canadians first by following the evidence and facts, medical or otherwise. People are dying. We must act.

This bill must be carefully and critically considered, and I am very pleased that my colleague brought this forward. I very much look forward to working with the hon. member opposite on this critical issue, as well as any other measures to address this opioid crisis.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6:10 p.m.
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Conservative

Laila Goodridge Conservative Fort McMurray—Cold Lake, AB

Madam Speaker, I want to thank the member for Courtenay—Alberni for his passionate work on this file. We share an idea of seeing a world free from addiction.

I would also like to thank two very dear friends of mine, Eric and Sheldon, for their assistance with this speech today, especially for sharing their experience, strength and hope with those suffering from addiction and helping them find a path toward recovery.

Addiction is an indiscriminate disease that is ravaging Canadian communities with horrifying momentum. It steals the lives of so many Canadians each and every day. The deadliest year on record for opioid-related overdoses was 2021. Statistics Canada has said that 2022 is on track to be another record-setting year.

Conservatives believe that addiction is a health issue and must be treated as such. We believe there needs to be an increase in resources for treatment and a shift in our focus towards recovery. Conservatives put forward a recovery-focused approach, one that puts focus on treating addictions as a health condition, directly into our recent election platform. Had we formed government, we wanted to revise the federal government substance abuse policy framework to make recovery an overarching goal. We would have reoriented the Canadian drug and substance strategy towards ensuring that everyone suffering from addictions had an opportunity to recover and lead a drug-free life, and that all policies that would fall under this strategy would have reduction of harm and promotion of recovery as their objectives.

We proposed concrete and detailed examples of how we would realize these goals, such as making a number of investments to create residential drug treatment beds and build recovery centres, including land-based treatment programs developed and managed by indigenous communities. Canada currently has a serious lack of addiction treatment space. There are often long wait-lists and many barriers that prevent Canadians with addictions from receiving the support they need.

I want to paint a picture of what I mean by pointing to some amazing work that is being done in my home province of Alberta, where there has been a marked change in approach over the last few years when it comes to addiction. Alberta has become focused on building a recovery-oriented system of care, one that helps people move from a life of addiction into a life of recovery. Over the last three years, it has made key investments to achieve the goal of recovery.

It created 8,000 treatment spaces, meaning that over 8,000 Albertans can access detox, treatment and recovery services every single year. Importantly, all of these new spaces are at no cost to Albertans since Alberta is the first province in Canada to completely eliminate user fees for publicly funded addictions treatment. It has made gold standard opioid-treatment drugs available on demand through the virtual opioid dependency program so that any Albertan can access evidence-based medications from anywhere in the province. It is building five new recovery communities that will add an additional 400 beds to our provincial treatment capacity.

While I do not believe that jail is the best place to address addiction, I think we really need to think carefully about how we proceed, and I have some concerns about the approach put forward by the member for Courtenay—Alberni. In fact, the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police has been clear that it does not support decriminalization without first having necessary prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery supports in place. Decriminalizing without having the appropriate access to treatment and supports in place is akin to putting the cart before the horse.

People often like to point to jurisdictions such as Portugal when they talk about decriminalization, but what is often failed to be realized is that in Portugal drugs remain illegal and people who are in possession of deadly and dangerous drugs still face administrative penalties while they are being offered treatment. Portugal also took the time to transition carefully to a recovery model so as not to leave addicts stuck in limbo at the risk of overdose. The Portugal model is effectively a diversionary tool to assertively help people access treatment and recovery. Most importantly, Portugal has a freely and rapidly accessible treatment system.

We cannot simply take away penalties and expect things to get better. We need a comprehensive recovery-oriented system of care in place before we can even start to talk about decriminalization. The problem at the moment is that the system of care across Canada is simply not adequate to be able to handle the number of people who would be diverted into treatment if this approach were to be adopted.

We can point to Oregon as an example of where decriminalization was brought forward without adequate capacity in place. Unfortunately, it is not going very well. Its model was marketed as a tool to help people access treatment and recovery, but it did not focus on building health care capacity. What we now see in Oregon is a dysfunctional and underfunded system that lacks adequate space for treatment and recovery. Essentially, its health care system was not prepared for it and does not have the resources available to implement it properly. Canada needs a government that will invest in offering recovery and healing with a substance abuse policy framework that makes recovery from substance dependency its primary purpose.

It is worth pointing out that the Government of Alberta is currently undertaking an evidence-based study through Alberta's Select Special Committee to Examine Safe Supply. In this study, members are hearing testimony from a number of witnesses. I want to point to one particular witness, Dr. Keith Humphreys. He is currently the chair of the Stanford-Lancet commission and was the White House drug policy adviser to former president Obama. In his policy assertion, he states that safe supply is not based in evidence, and I think it is really important to make sure we are keeping that in mind. I want to remind the House that OxyContin, the very drug that is responsible for so much of the opioid dependency issues we have today, was billed as safe supply when it was originally brought forward. It is effectively a marketing tool, rather than a medical term.

There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution to recovery and addiction. We need a suite of programs and initiatives to address this crisis. However, the most important thing is that we need to expand access to a range of treatments right now. These services have to be provided in a manner that is fair to the community, assertive in dealing with the illness of addiction and compassionate to the person who is struggling. Recovery must always be recognized as an achievable goal, and patients need to be assertively encouraged to pursue it. This means innovative treatment and recovery healing modalities that are not band-aid solutions that manage addiction but neglect root causes. Until recovery is as easy to access as drugs, we should not even think about moving in this direction.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6:20 p.m.
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Bloc

Luc Thériault Bloc Montcalm, QC

Madam Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C‑216 from the member for Courtenay—Alberni, whom I like very much and have known since 2015. He is a noble-hearted man. I am confident that he brings his bill to us today, at the passage-in-principle stage, because he hopes to address this acutely alarming issue.

I will read out the summary because the bill has three parts. I would have thought the government would want to put these eggs in its Bill C‑5 basket, but apparently not. I am just thinking out loud, but the fact remains that the Bloc Québécois falls somewhere in between. I will explain its position.

First, this enactment amends the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to repeal a provision that makes it an offence to possess certain substances. It also makes consequential amendments to other acts.

Second, it enacts the Expungement of Certain Drug-related Convictions Act. We debated this and talked about how someone who gets stopped for simple possession is in trouble not only on human level, because they have substance abuse issues, but also because they are left with a criminal record and all the associated stigma.

The third part is important in my opinion. Substance use is a complex problem and phenomenon, and a national strategy on substance use is important, but what I find most intriguing is that the bill requires the Minister of Health to develop a national strategy to address the harm caused by problematic substance use.

The thing is, in the bill itself, it says this whole strategy, including the decriminalization of simple possession, will be implemented the year after the act comes into force. For now, I need to think about this because it raises some issues.

I am going to do something I have never done in the House. Medical assistance in dying is another difficult issue, but I have never shared a personal experience. I want people to understand that things have evolved. There is a thing called sociology of law. We have come a long way, and it is great to hear all members of the House because nowadays, in 2022, we no longer see problems associated with drug use as a crime issue; we see them as a public health issue, a socioeconomic issue and, sometimes, a mental health issue.

I had the privilege of having an experience in my life that made me grow. It was in 1998, 24 years ago. After that, I could never again look at a homeless person with multiple addictions in the same way when I saw them on the street. Why?

I had some communications students come to me and ask me for some ethical guidance. They told me about a place called Chez ma cousine Evelyn, which served as a kind of buffer zone. Speaking of diversion, there was a pilot project at the time. In order to get a bed, a place, a room in that house—and there were not many beds—you had to be homeless, an addict, and HIV positive. You had to have all three of those problems.

We set out looking for people like that downtown, and we identified a huge number of young people under 35 who met those criteria. Unfortunately, there were no resources.

We approached these people and got them to speak with us. They could be anyone, including me or anyone here, a grandson, my daughter or a neighbour's daughter. These people had a life story that had nothing to do with their current state. Some were remarkable. I remember one person who had studied at Oxford. We would have coffee very early in the morning and she would teach me about philosophy, even though she was at the point where she did not care about anything other than her substance use.

These people were well known to the local police and therefore could go to sleep at Chez ma cousine Évelyne, consume substances there and be supervised by workers who helped manage their consumption. What is interesting, they told us, is that the first few times they injected, they would hide in the bedroom to do it, even though they were allowed do it there without any problem. If the police saw them on the street late at night, needing a ride, the police would bring them back to Chez ma cousine Évelyne.

To make a long story short, we worked with them for three months and only then, and not before, were we able to turn on the cameras. When they talked to us, it was as though the cameras were not there. We learned a lot during that time. Chez ma cousine Évelyne was able to take them in when they had hit rock bottom, felt defeated and had a millstone around their necks. Some people believe that all it takes is resolve and keeping one's head above water, but these people kept going under right away.

Seeing this reality was quite the experience for me. When these people hit bottom, there is no one there for them. They themselves acknowledge that they have alienated everyone. In some cases, we were able to ensure that the individual could die at Chez ma cousine Évelyne surrounded by family members, with whom they had managed to reconnect. Those were intensely human moments.

Because of this experience, I am saying yes to decriminalization. However, we need a way to achieve that. A very interesting report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction points out that legislative intervention, meaning decriminalization, is ultimately only one of the pillars of a comprehensive approach, which takes time and effort to implement. Portugal, for example, scaled up prevention, treatment and harm reduction services two years prior to decriminalization.

Implementation of a pan-Canadian strategy should therefore precede decriminalization to ensure that the federal government or other levels of government do not shirk their responsibility by arguing that those people are no longer in the legal system.

That is the main problem we see in this bill. It is also the reason we would like to improve it. We will reflect on this.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6:30 p.m.
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NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Madam Speaker, I am deeply honoured to rise today to speak to Bill C-216, the health-based approach to the substance use act.

I would like to thank my colleague, the hon. member for Courtenay—Alberni, for introducing this legislation and for his tireless efforts to advance compassionate and evidenced-based drug policy in this country.

In the shadow of COVID-19, the overdose epidemic has rapidly worsened across Canada, and it is hard to believe that could have happened. In British Columbia, 2,224 died from overdoses in 2021 alone. This represents the deadliest year on record in Canadian history, and a 26% increase from 2020. December 2021 was also the deadliest month on record in British Columbia, with 215 people losing their lives that month alone from an opioid-poisoned drug death. That is the equivalent of about seven deaths per day. Across Canada, over 25,000 Canadians have lost their lives to the overdose epidemic in the last six years alone.

Although COVID-19 has fuelled this crisis, it did not create it. Decades of criminalization; a toxic, poisoned, illicit supply; and a lack of timely access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services have caused this ongoing catastrophe.

The Liberal government claims that its response to COVID-19 has been evidenced-based and informed by science and the advice of public health experts. It is time to apply that approach to Canada's other epidemic. It is time to treat substance use addictions as the health issues they truly are. The legislation before the House today would do exactly that.

The health-based approach to the substance use act would comprehensively address Canada's overdose epidemic as follows: It would decriminalize personal drug possession; it would provide for record expungement; it would ensure a low-barrier access to a regulated, safe supply; and it would expand access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services across Canada while also focusing on prevention and education.

Decriminalization is one of those issues on which I believe voters are far ahead of politicians. It is a policy area where public opinion more accurately reflects the empirical data than our laws do. That is because not a single community across Canada is untouched by addiction. Everyone has a mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, cousin, grandparent, partner, friend, neighbour, coworker, child who has struggled with problematic substance use or substance use disorder, or maybe it is even they themself. Indeed, Canadians understand intuitively something that is critically important to acknowledge in the House tonight: Those who are suffering are not criminals. Rather, they are vulnerable people experiencing tremendous pain.

In his years working in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Dr. Gabor Maté, whom I consider to be an expert of global stature and a great Canadian, has found that childhood trauma and emotional pain lie at the root of addiction. Dr. Maté said, “This is not a war on drugs. This is a war on drug addicts.”

Addiction can never be understood if looked at through the lens of moralism and judgment. It is time, as a society, that we ask not why the addiction but instead why the pain. Indeed, if we accept that pain and trauma are at the root of addiction, then criminalization can only be seen as cruel and counterproductive, because it compounds the very problem it seeks to correct. Stigma, shame and abuse are the core emotional issues for those suffering from substance disorder, and criminalizing their behaviour exacerbates and deepens that shame and stigma. This is obvious.

Criminal sanctions are society's way of imposing maximum trauma on individuals. They get harassed by the police; they go through the indignity of arrest; they go into the very serious, intimidating context of a court; they go through a trial; they go to jail. This system is designed to impose the most serious pressure society can possibly impose. In other words, when we criminalize substance use, we retraumatize people who are already struggling to cope with trauma.

Moreover, decades of evidence have demonstrated that criminalization serves to keep people who use drugs away from prevention and early treatment health services due to fear of being arrested, labelled or outed. Criminalization also pushes people who use drugs to rely on an illicit and obviously toxic drug supply.

If criminalizing drug use worked, we would have eliminated it years ago, but instead we have spent billions of dollars, harmed millions of people, torn families and communities apart, ruined individuals' lives and achieved nothing. It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. If that is the case, decades of lawmakers in the House have been and are insane.

Part 1 of this legislation would end Canada's war on drugs once and for all by striking the prohibition against personal possession from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. It would end the insanity of the war on drugs.

Furthermore, criminal records amplify the harms of criminalization by exposing people who use drugs to ongoing discrimination and create barriers to housing, gainful employment, travel and community involvement. This in turn leads to further stigmatization and marginalization.

The disproportionate impact of criminal records on racialized and indigenous communities has also been well documented. That is why part 2 of this legislation is so essential to a health-based approach to drug use. It would ensure that criminal records from previous offences related to personal possession would be fully expunged, so that someone does not carry stigmatization for the rest of their lives. Unlike the current Liberal government's failed policy on cannabis pardons, the process outlined in this bill would provide for an automatic, cost-free and complete deletion of records.

Finally, part 3 of this legislation would require the development and implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to address the harm caused by problematic substance use. It would get at the real cause of the deaths. This strategy would be developed in collaboration with key stakeholders, including advocacy organizations, frontline health care providers; and, importantly, individuals with lived experience. It would address the root causes of problematic substance use; ensure access to a safe, regulated supply; provide universal access to recovery, treatment and harm reduction services; and reduce the stigma associated with substance use. There is an urgent need for low-barrier access to a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to illegal street drugs of all types for everyone now. Given that the main driver of the overdose crisis is the fact that the illicit, poisoned drug supply is toxic and unpredictable, experts have been clear that the death toll cannot be abated without this evidence-based measure.

Although limited access to safe supply has been provided in some jurisdictions, existing programs do not come anywhere even close to meeting demand across the country. To emphasize, it is the toxic, poisoned street supply of drugs run by criminalized manufacturers with no regulation that is killing Canadians by the thousands. Any law that does not address this reality is not health-based; it is contributing to fatalities.

Some in the current government say they believe in treating addiction as a health issue and not a criminal one. I have heard three consecutive Liberal health ministers and a Liberal Prime Minister say this many times, but they refuse to act on this claim. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is the law that criminalizes drug use and addiction, and it is a federal law.

I am calling out every member of the House, especially Liberals, on that contradiction tonight, because this is a contradiction that kills. They cannot say they treat drug use and addiction as a health issue and leave it criminalized on the federal books to continue to kill people.

I hope all parliamentarians stop the insanity. Let us start treating drug use and addiction as the health issue that it really is.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6:40 p.m.
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Liberal

The Assistant Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Alexandra Mendès) Liberal Alexandra Mendes

The hon. parliamentary secretary to the government House leader has four minutes.

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6:40 p.m.
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Winnipeg North Manitoba

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Madam Speaker, in reflection, whether it is the Prime Minister, as the member just pointed out, or ministers of health of this government, members of the Liberal caucus, my colleague from the north, members from British Columbia or members from the province of Quebec, it is safe to say that in all regions of our country we have recognized that this is a national public health crisis that we are talking about.

At the same time, we recognize that it is a public health issue. We have consistently said that through the years. I can remember being in the opposition benches when I talked about the importance of supervised safe injection sites, citing Vancouver as an example. We saw different levels of government, first responders and many different advocates dealing with the types of issues that we are talking about coming together and ultimately setting the stage to say that it is a health issue and that we need to work collectively together in order to be able to take on that issue.

We have seen great success. It has already been referenced today that no one has actually died of an overdose at one of these supervised safe injection sites. We are talking about well over two million visits in a year.

We have to be aware that we are not talking about the odd person who has an addiction. There are people with serious addictions living in all of our communities, and that is why we talk about it being a public health crisis. It is a health issue, and—

Health-based Approach to Substance Use ActPrivate Members' Business

March 2nd, 2022 / 6:40 p.m.
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Liberal

The Assistant Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Alexandra Mendès) Liberal Alexandra Mendes

The hon. member still has seven and a half minutes to pursue his speech on the matter when the bill next comes to the House.

The time provided for the consideration of Private Members' Business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.

The House resumed from March 2 consideration of the motion that Bill C-216, 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, be read the second time and referred to a committee.