Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House of Commons today to speak in support of Bill C-37, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other Acts. This legislation is long-awaited and evidence-based, and it can save lives. I wish to thank the Standing Committee on Health for its timely and helpful review of Bill C-37.
As everyone knows, our government is deeply concerned about Canada’s ongoing opioid crisis. Over the last year, we have seen an unprecedented number of deaths in this country. In British Columbia and Alberta, opioid-related overdoses are overtaking motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death. While some parts of the country have been more severely hit than others, no part of the country is immune. Sadly, many Canadians have lost friends or family members, or know someone who has.
The government is therefore committed to addressing this complex public health crisis, and problematic substance use more generally, through a comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate, and evidence-based approach.
That is why on December 12, 2016, the Minister of Health, with the support of the Minister of Public Safety and the Minister of Justice, announced the new Canadian drugs and substances strategy. This new strategy formalizes our government's commitment to taking a health-focused approach to addressing problematic substance use by restoring harm reduction as a core pillar of Canada's drug policy. It also aims to strengthen the evidence-based underpinning of Canada's drug policy.
At the same time, the minister introduced a comprehensive bill in the House of Commons that would support the new strategy, Bill C-37, a bill that strives to address certain gaps and weaknesses in the existing legislation by better equipping health professionals and law enforcement with the tools they need to protect the public, protect public health, and maintain public safety. The provisions contained in Bill C-37 would help to address the ongoing opioid crisis, and for this reason I encourage all members of the House of Commons to support the bill's quick passage.
Addiction is a complex issue. Not everyone will respond to treatment the same way, and not everyone is willing or able to enter treatment. Unfortunately, evidence demonstrates that individuals who are outside of treatment are at an increased risk for major health and social harms, including overdose and death. This is why the government recognizes that we must be pragmatic in our approach to problematic substance use.
As Canadian communities struggle to respond to the opioid crisis, it is essential that evidence-based harm reduction measures, including supervised consumption sites, be a part of that response. Concrete evidence demonstrates that, when properly established and maintained, these sites save lives and improve health.
However, in 2015, the previous government passed the Respect for Communities Act, which required applicants interested in establishing supervised consumption sites to address 26 criteria in their application before the minister of health could consider it.
On top of that, to renew an exemption for an existing site, applicants have to submit information to address the 26 criteria as well as information related to two additional criteria before an application can be considered.
As a result, this legislation is widely viewed by public health experts as a barrier to establishing new supervised consumption sites, which is unfortunate.
As I have already stated, the evidence shows that supervised consumption sites save lives. As we work to stem the crisis of opioid overdose deaths, facilitating the establishment of these sites in communities where they are wanted and needed is a priority.
That is why Bill C-37 proposes to relieve the administrative burden on communities seeking to establish a supervised consumption site, without compromising the health and safety of those operating the site, its clients, or the surrounding community.
Further, with respect to renewals, existing supervised consumption sites would no longer require a new application. Instead, under Bill C-37, a renewal would simply be requested by informing Health Canada of any changes to the information that was submitted as part of a site’s last application.
Last week, the Standing Committee on Health adopted Bill C-37 with one amendment to clarify the information requirement for an application for a supervised consumption site. This is an amendment that our government fully supports.
Now at report state there is a motion from the member for Oshawa to delete clause 42 of Bill C-37. This would remove from Bill C-37 all of the amendments designed to streamline the application process for a supervised consumption site. The government cannot support this motion.
Supervised consumption sites are a key element to responding to the opioid crisis, and our government has heard that the current legislative framework is a barrier to their successful implementation in communities that want and need them.
An important aspect of this crisis is the extraordinary potency of the drugs being consumed, often unintentionally. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, is one of particular concern. While it has legal pharmaceutical use for severe pain relief, it can be misused for its heroin-like effects. Fentanyl is often disguised as other opioids, such as oxycodone or heroin, or added to other drugs.
A pilot drug checking project at Insite, a supervised consumption site in Vancouver, found that 91% of drugs reported as heroin or containing heroin were also positive for fentanyl. Disguising fentanyl in other drugs leads to overdoses, as individuals are not aware of the potency of the substances they are using.
We know that pill presses and encapsulators, which can be used for legitimate purposes, are also being imported to manufacture illegal pills containing opioids. According to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, a single pill press can turn a kilogram of raw fentanyl worth a few thousand dollars into hundreds of thousands of pills worth millions of dollars on the black market
Currently, these devices can be legally imported into Canada by anyone, with no regulatory requirements. Under Bill C-37, every bill press and encapsulator imported into Canada would need to be registered with Health Canada.
The most illicit fentanyl is produced in other countries illegally and imported in small packages. Pure fentanyl is an extremely powerful opioid where even a few milligrams can cause a fatal overdose. A small package of pure fentanyl smuggled into Canada through international mail can contain the equivalent of thousands of fatal doses.
Currently, all mail entering Canada may be examined by an officer at the border prior to being allowed into the domestic postal stream, if the officer has reasonable grounds to do so. However, mail weighing 30 grams or less may only be opened if consent is obtained from the sender or the addressee. If no consent is given, suspicious mail is simply returned to the sender. It is believed that this exception is being exploited by drug smugglers and resulting in the proliferation of trafficking via international mail.
Bill C-37 would address this by enabling officers at the border to open all items in the international mail stream if they have reasonable grounds to be suspicious that the mail contains illicit goods.
Finally, we know that the opioid crisis has introduced very real workplace health and safety concerns for front-line staff, including border agents, law enforcement officers, and others who may be exposed to fentanyl and carfentanil during the course of their duties.
This concern is only made worse by the current rules related to the handling and disposition of seized controlled substances; precursors and other offence-related property are cumbersome and complex and include requirements for agencies to store materials until a court order can be obtained. This results in large quantities of controlled substances, potentially dangerous chemicals, and other offence-related property sitting in police evidence holdings for long periods, increasing the risk of exposure to these dangerous substances and increasing the risk of their being diverted to the illicit market.
Among the many provisions included in this bill to modernize the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to keep pace with changes in the licit and illicit drug market, there are provisions that would introduce a new expedited process for the disposal of seized controlled substances, precursors, and chemical offence-related property.
Since I have only a few seconds left, I will wrap up now.
In conclusion, I would say that Bill C-37 would address gaps and weaknesses with existing legislation in order to better respond to the opioid crisis. This bill is another example of our government's commitment to establishing a comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate, and evidence-based approach to drug policy in order to reduce the harms currently being experienced by individuals and communities, caused by drugs.
I strongly, therefore, encourage all members of the House to support this bill, as amended by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health.