Mr. Speaker, we are here today to discuss the amendments to Bill C-37, an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other acts.
I would like to start my remarks by thanking the Standing Committee on Health, and the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, as well as members of both Houses of Parliament for their time and expertise in the review of Bill C-37.
This bill proposes a number of amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and other acts, to support our government's efforts to address the current opioid crisis, as well as problematic substance abuse more generally. I will focus my remarks on Bill C-37 and the opioid crisis in Canada.
Canada is in a public health crisis due to an increasing number of opioid-related overdoses and deaths. The reality is that individuals, families, and communities across Canada are losing loved ones to this crisis, and it is more and more likely that the majority of Canadians know someone, directly or indirectly, who has been impacted.
Until very recently, only British Columbia and Alberta regularly reported on opioid overdoses and deaths. While I cannot speak about a national picture of overdoses and deaths due to drug substances, it is clear that the numbers we do have are rising. For example, in British Columbia, 931 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, an increase of 80% from 2015. In Alberta, 343 fentanyl-related deaths occurred in 2016, an increase of 33% from 2015.
According to Ontario's chief medical officer of health, approximately one in every 170 deaths in Ontario is related to opioid overdose. Furthermore, we all see the severity, through daily news articles that outline the number of overdoses and deaths from the night before. The news cannot be ignored. People are suffering and people are dying.
Our government has already taken many actions to date to address this crisis. These actions include commitments in the areas of prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and enforcement, all supported by strong evidence-based and targeted public health emergency response.
In addition, recognizing that provinces, territories, and other stakeholders have an important role to play, the Minister of Health co-hosted an opioid conference and summit in November 2016, which brought together a broad range of stakeholders for a national dialogue on actions to address and reduce the harms related to opioid use in Canada.
In December 2016, the Canadian drugs and substances strategy was introduced, replacing the national anti-drug strategy with a balanced and health-focused approach. Also, Health Canada funded the Michael G. DeGroote National Pain Centre, at McMaster University, to lead a project to update the Canadian guideline for safe and effective use of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain, which was published this May. The goal of the updated guidelines is to maximize the benefits of opioid therapy for chronic non-cancer pain, while reducing the risk of harm.
Bill C-37 was introduced on December 12, 2016. As mentioned, it proposes a number of amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and other acts to support our government's efforts to address the current opioid crisis, as well as problematic substance use more generally. For example, it makes important proposed changes to the establishment of supervised consumption sites. Currently, supervised consumption sites are governed by the Respect for Communities Act. This act requires that applicants interested in establishing supervised consumption sites address 26 criteria in their application. Further, to renew an exemption for an existing site, the same 26 criteria must be addressed, as well as information related to two additional criteria.
Many experts agree that this administrative burden makes it difficult for supervised consumption sites to be created in communities that need them.
Evidence guides our government's current approach to drug policy, and Canadian and international research shows that when properly established and maintained, supervised consumption sites can and do save lives and indeed improve health. Without compromising the health and safety of those operating the site, its clients, or its surrounding community, Bill C-37 proposes to relieve the administrative burden on communities seeking to establish a supervised consumption site.
Rather than 26 criteria, Bill C-37 proposes five factors to be included in applications. These factors examine the impact on crime rates, the local conditions indicating need, the regulatory structure in place to support the facility, the resources available to support its maintenance, and the expressions of community support or opposition. Streamlining the application and renewal process and adding in a new transparency provision means that applicants can be assured that the process will not cause unreasonable delay. If assented to, Bill C-37 would support the establishment of supervised consumption sites by showing communities that their voices would be heard and that each application would be subject to a comprehensive review.
Also, for renewals, a new application would no longer be required. Instead, a renewal would simply be requested by informing Health Canada of any changes to the information that was submitted as part of the site's last application. If a community is benefiting from an existing supervised consumption site, then why would the federal government make it burdensome for their application to be renewed?
The Senate has adopted amendments to Bill C-37 that focus on further involving the public in their input regarding supervised consumption sites. Our government supports one of those amendments fully, the amendment to establish a minimum consultation period of 45 days when the minister chooses to post a public notice of consideration in cases where there may be extenuating circumstances.
However, our government does not support the second amendment, which is to allow for citizen advisory committees for supervised consumption sites. By setting out a mechanism for oversight that does not apply to any other health service, this would add stigma to the use of harm reduction services at a time when the focus needs to be on saving lives.
Finally, our government seeks to amend the provision requiring an offer of alternative pharmaceutical treatment at supervised consumption sites. While we share the goal of improving access to treatment, the mandatory wording could pose an additional burden to applicants seeking to establish supervised consumption sites. I repeat that this cannot be risked during such a time of urgent need.
Bill C-37 also contains additional provisions to reduce the availability and harm of street drugs. Another pressing aspect of the opioid crisis is that street drugs are being made more and more potent as they are being laced with fentanyl. Illegal fentanyl, often imported, is increasingly available, and overdoses are occurring when individuals are not aware of the potency of the substances they are using. This includes counterfeit pills made using pill presses and encapsulators. Currently, these devices can be and are legally imported into Canada by anyone, with no specific regulatory requirements.