Mr. Speaker, today we are debating a motion put forward by the Minister of Health. The motion addresses the amendments proposed by the Senate in regard to Bill C-37, an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other acts.
First, I want to stress that the opioid crisis continues to be an absolute tragedy. People across the country are still dying at an alarming rate, and there is no one solution to this. In fact, I think most Canadians would agree that there are many factors that have contributed to and continue to contribute to this serious issue.
When Bill C-37 was first introduced in the House, I made a point to let the minister know that my colleagues and I were very much in favour of the majority of the bill. I had the chance to take part in a health committee study that had taken place prior to the tabling of the bill which looked specifically at the opioid crisis in our country and what we were facing.
Taking part in the study allowed me to truly learn and empathize with struggling addicts, communities, first nations, health professionals, and families that have had to endure an opioid-related death. We learned that there were many factors that contributed to this crisis. While one cause of the crisis results from illegal substances and organized crime, many people are battling addiction because of the practice of over-prescribing of painkillers. Some of these causes have yet to be addressed, but I definitely think the right steps are being taken, at least for the most part.
I stated earlier that I was in favour of most of the bill, and that is because the minister recognized that tackling the production, distribution, importation, and consumption of deadly drugs needs to be made a priority. She listened to the advice of Conservatives on the health committee and in the Senate, and I commend her for that. I will not get into details about Bill C-37 as I have already had the opportunity to do so twice now, but I do think it is important to acknowledge and point to the bill's attempt to weaken public consultation in the approval of injection sites.
That is why, when I had the chance to review the Senate's amendments to Bill C-37, I was glad to put my support behind them. I will summarize the Senate's amendments.
The first amendment ensures that there is a minimum consultation period of 45 days prior to the approval of an injection site. The second amendment looks to establish a citizen advisory committee responsible for advising the approved injection site of any public concerns, including public health and safety. The amendment also looked to have the committee provide the minister with a yearly update on these matters. The third amendment directs those working at the site to offer the person using the site legal pharmaceutical therapy before that person consumes illegal drugs obtained illegally.
Unlike here in the House where the Liberals rammed the bill through with minimal debate, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs was able to hold five meetings and hear from 22 witnesses. That is in contrast to the health committee, which only scheduled one meeting on the bill, with only four witnesses appearing, and none of whom was the Minister of Health.
The Senate's amendments are well thought out and take into consideration communities and those battling addiction. I must admit that I was surprised to see the minister agree to the first amendment, as her colleagues voted against the same amendment brought forward by the Conservatives. I am happy that she made the right choice in ensuring that communities at least will have some chance to be involved, if only in a small way.
I do, however, want to acknowledge my disappointment with her rejection of a voluntary community committee. The minister's refusal to include community involvement in regard to injection sites goes against the majority of testimony we heard. Over and over again, witnesses at committee stated that injection sites would not be successful without community support. Community support goes beyond harm reduction advocates. It includes mothers, fathers, law enforcement, and of course the local government. The minister knows that by passing the Senate's amendment to establish a citizen advisory committee, it would demonstrate and respect the fact that not everyone wants an injection site in his or her backyard.
I want to talk about the reasons I support a community committee. By establishing a community committee, it would ensure that the injection site remains clean, and that it operates in a way that prioritizes the health and safety of Canadians. It would ensure that the minister of health, the individual who is responsible and who ultimately approves the site, remains in the loop about the community's concerns with regard to the site. It would ensure that he or she, along with the actual operators of the site, would be held accountable and to a high standard. That should be the goal. The health and safety of those battling addiction and the health and safety of all citizens should be a priority.
That is why I was shocked that the minister's motion looks to change the wording of the Senate amendment that would improve the bill. The third amendment seeks to offer pharmaceutical therapy as a substitution to an illegally obtained and possibly deadly poison. I realize that the minister's concerns lay in the fact that these sites may range in different services such as an injection site within a hospital to mobile injection sites, but what strikes me as odd is that we would discourage the use of a legal substitution for heroin such as methadone.
For those who may not know, methadone is a maintenance treatment which, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, CAMH, prevents opioid withdrawal and reduces or eliminates drug cravings. It is by offering substitutions that are legal and of pharmaceutical grade such as methadone that could lead a serious drug dependent individual to seek treatment and get the help he or she needs to get clean. Again, should that not be the goal?
The CAMH also states that an individual who is physically dependent on opioids such as heroin or fentanyl is kept free of withdrawal symptoms for 24 hours after a single dose of methadone. In contrast, a person who uses heroin or other short-acting opioids must use three or four times a day to avoid withdrawal. There is no argument here. By ensuring that users are offered legal substitution, crime rates will decrease and the likelihood of seeking detoxification treatment will go up.
I would like to read testimony from the Senate's hearing in which the minister was actually a witness.
I will quote Senator White:
I spent last Sunday night and Monday night in East Hastings with police officers and health officials walking up and down those streets and visiting some of the facilities. The biggest concern raised by community members who aren't addicts and by police officers and health officials is the use of illegal drugs.
I notice that we did see a regulatory change that will allow for the use of medical-grade heroin, but we did not see any regulatory changes that will allow for the medical use of other than medical-grade heroin.
My perspective and that of most people around supervised injection sites is that they move to the relationship between a doctor and an addict, not organized crime, a drug dealer and an addict who is committing crimes but an addict and the doctor which is where it is now. Will we see regulatory change that will allow for greater use of prescriptive pharmaceuticals rather than illegal and illicit poison? I don't want to call them drugs because they're not that.
At that time, the Minister of Health responded. She said:
Thank you for the question. It is a very good one. I encourage honourable senators to work with us in ensuring that access to all range of treatments and responses to this health problem are there. Some of this requires the decisions of provinces and territories as well as medical practitioners who obviously make decisions about what appropriate treatments are.
There is nothing in the bill and nothing in the law that would prevent provinces from expanding a treatment centre associated with a supervised consumption site to be able to allow these kind of treatments to which you are referring to work closely. I think it is an outstanding model and it's a model that we have to perhaps talk about a little more in public.
I know, senator, you are well aware of the work done in other countries. Switzerland is perhaps the best example of that. When people are determined to have opioids use disorder and/or have legal problems associated with their substance use disorder they are introduced to the possibility of being able to be prescribed medications. It certainly has been effective in decreasing crime rates in those areas, very dramatically decreasing overdose rates and treating this as a health issue.
That is what the minister said when she was a witness. Why the change? In Switzerland, they do in fact offer drug substitution as proposed in the Senate amendment, and as stated, it has led to a dramatic reduction of illegal drugs, has reduced crime rates, and has lowered overdose rates. This model has seen high levels of acceptance because rather than an addict illegally obtaining illegal drugs, the individual is able to get pharmacological help from a doctor with the goal of leading to seeking proper treatment. That is why this is so important.
This amendment would allow an individual to enter a site and be offered a legal drug by a medical practitioner as opposed to a dangerous and potentially deadly drug, a poison bought from a drug dealer. This, as I have stated, removes the potential of overdosing and eliminates criminal activity. If the Liberals really wanted to treat addiction as a health problem, they should be encouraging doctors and nurses to be at these sites administering alternatives that many addicts do not even know about.
We should not be encouraging irresponsible administering of illegal drugs that are manufactured and mixed in a drug dealer's basement lab. We know that they are being laced with fentanyl, carfentanil, and much more. We have an overdose crisis in this country. I will not object to the assertion that injection sites can temporarily save lives, as it is always better when an individual is revived, but we need to be looking at ways to prevent the overdose from happening in the first place.
I believe this amendment that would guarantee that the drug user is offered an alternative pharmaceutical therapy prior to putting something poisonous and potentially deadly into his or her body would do just that. That is why it is crucial that the Liberal government take initiative and ensure that injection sites do not become a place for people simply to get high. If injection sites are wanted in communities, they should be used to ensure that addicts are offered legal, safer alternatives to dangerous and illegal street drugs that have been obtained illegally from drug dealers, alternatives that would decrease overdose rates and decrease crime rates, which I believe should be the overall goal.
I realize that the minister has not flat-out rejected the amendment, but by changing the words “shall offer” to “may offer”, we would guarantee that the majority of users would not be offered a legal, safer alternative. We would not force diabetic Canadians who rely on insulin to commit a crime or numerous crimes to find an illegal insulin supply and to buy their treatment from drug dealers, would we?
Canadians expect their government, if it truly feels that addiction should be treated as a health problem, to provide safe treatment options and detoxification programs for those suffering from addiction. The Liberal plan, unfortunately, provides none of that. The response to this crisis has been horribly slow. We are still debating a bill that was tabled in December and communities are still seeing an increase in overdose deaths. Our country has seen no progress in increasing access to detox treatment, which is another issue that must be addressed but has failed to be addressed by the current Liberal government. We know that not all addicts are willing to go into treatment, which is why I believe that, with the certainty of many new injection sites opening up in the near future, we should at a bare minimum be ensuring that users have a choice between a poisonous street drug or a legal alternative.
In conclusion, this is how I view the situation. The motion put forth by the minister leaves out communities and eliminates the likelihood of reducing crime and overdose rates by offering legal substitution. The approval of an injection site will have a profound impact on any community. Perhaps some will be successful and some will not, but the individual approving the site, the minister of health, should be putting the health of Canadians first. He or she should be encouraging the use of pharmaceutical alternatives over illegally obtained street poison. He or she should be held accountable for the success or failure of approved sites, and not just be the individual responsible for rubber-stamping them. The minister has not even stated how she will measure that success. Will she keep statistics on how many addicts get referred to treatment and on how many are referred to detox programs?
This is why I would encourage all parties and members of this House to review very carefully the Senate amendments. They would not make the application process any more difficult and they would not slow down the approval process. All they would do is give citizens within a community that has an approved site a voice, and give those who are addicted to deadly drugs a safer alternative. In a caring country such as ours, should that not be what it is all about?
The Senate amendments were well thought out and put the health and safety of Canadians first. I challenge the Liberals to do the same. Therefore, I move:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following: “the amendments made by the Senate to Bill C-37, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other Acts, be now read a second time and concurred in.”