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.