moved that Bill C-236, an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (evidence-based diversion measures) be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, before the pandemic, I introduced Bill C-235 to decriminalize all drugs for personal possession, and this legislation, Bill C-236 as an alternative to create a diversion framework to limit police and prosecutorial discretion in keeping with evidence-based principles.
I was motivated to introduce these bills because of the opioid crisis. As we live through the COVID pandemic and are rightly concerned about how different levels of government are working together to protect us, it is important that we do not forget about the scale of tragedy the opioid crisis has brought to so many families across our country.
From January 2016 to March 2020, there have been 16,364 apparent opioid-related deaths, nearly 11 a day. There have also been over 20,000 opioid-related poisoning and hospitalizations, or 13 per day. Public health officials do not update us every day the way they do with COVID, but perhaps they should. It is a public health crisis, and it is a tragedy.
StatsCan, pre-pandemic, told us that for the first time in 40 years, our life expectancy had stalled. StatsCan said:
Life expectancy at birth did not increase from 2016 to 2017 for either males or females, a first in over four decades. This was largely attributable to the opioid crisis.
We know that the crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. In the words of none other than Health Canada:
At the intersection of these public health crises, people who use substances are likely to experience a number of increased risks.
As we see our government listen to public health experts and respond with emergency measures to address the COVID pandemic, it stands in stark contrast, unfortunately, to the way in which we have handled these opioid-related deaths.
Let me start with quoting some public health experts we have been listening to in the course of the COVID crisis, but that we have failed to heed in the opioid crisis. Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam has called for a societal discussion on decriminalization. B.C.'s public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry published a report called, “Stopping The Harm”, explicitly calling for decriminalization, writing:
There is widespread global recognition that the failed “war on drugs” and the resulting criminalization nd stigmatizati o n of people who use drugs has not reduced drug use but instead has increased health harms.
Let me put it more bluntly: our outdated and ineffective laws are killing people. If we embraced evidence-based policies, we would not have a highly toxic illegal drug supply. Again, this is Bonnie Henry speaking through her report:
Substance use occurs on a spectrum, from beneficial (e.g., social activity, cultural practices) to non-problematic (e.g., recreational or occasional use), to problematic...to chronic dependence and addiction....due to the toxicity...there is considerable risk of overdose and overdose death related to illegal drug use in any capacity.
Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa has also published a report that states:
The evidence...strongly support the need to shift to a public health approach to drugs in Canada.
She goes on to call on us, the federal government, to decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use.
The UN and WHO published a joint statement in 2017, calling on countries to put in place guarantees against the discrimination in law, policies and regulations in health, including by reviewing and repealing laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and counter established public health evidence. Again, not my words, their words, “These include laws that criminalize...drug use or possession of drugs for personal use”.
In its report, “Care not Corrections”, the Canadian Mental Health Association writes:
Criminalizing people who use...drugs stigmatizes substance use; it also fosters a climate in which they feel unsafe in accessing life-saving interventions and treatment services, and further marginalizes people living in poverty [or at social disadvantage].
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction has written:
A growing body of evidence suggests that decriminalization is an effective way to mitigate the harms of substance use and the policies and practices used to deal with it, especially those harms associated with criminal justice prosecution for simple possession.
Stepping for a moment outside of the advice of public health experts and looking to those in the justice system, we have the Chief Justice of Ontario, Justice Strathy, as he opened the courts, say this:
There is increasing recognition that we, as a society, need to re-consider how we define “crime” and whether some offences, labelled criminal, should be regarded as health-related matters and addressed therapeutically. In recent months, as opioid deaths have soared, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and many of Canada's chief medical health officers, have suggested that after a century of drug prohibition, we should stop treating the use and simple possession of narcotics as a criminal offence and regard them as public health matters. We need to consider whether these and other social challenges are most effectively addressed outside the courts.
Now, the chief justice referenced our police chiefs, and in July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police wrote its own report calling for decriminalization and evidence-based drug policies, which said, “While law enforcement across Canada exercise their discretion when considering possession charges, such as the presence of harmful behaviour or the availability of treatment services, the application of the law is inconsistent across communities.”
The report continues, “We must adopt new and innovative approaches if we are going to disrupt the current trend of drug overdoses impacting communities across Canada. Merely arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective.”
These are not my words. These are the words of our police chiefs, and the words are “proven to be ineffective.”
The report goes on to say, “Research from other countries who have boldly chosen to take a health rather than an enforcement-based approach to problematic drug use have demonstrated positive results.”
When I spoke to Waterloo Chief of Police, Bryan Larkin, I told him that we absolutely need national action, but if we do not get national action in the immediate term, as a way forward, what if municipalities made the request, whether it was Vancouver or Toronto, to the federal government asking for an exemption? He told me that the police chiefs would support that approach as well. We now have had the City of Vancouver call on the federal government to decriminalize simple possession in its geography. Our federal government should honour and grant that request.
The police chiefs also recognize the international evidence, and it is important to pause for a moment and recognize that international evidence. I will point to Portugal, which decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use in 2000. Since then, it has seen overdose-related deaths go down and drug use stay the same. It has not seen problematic drug use increase in any significant way whatsoever. Importantly, it has seen the number of people seeking treatment increase by 60%.
Not only do we know that this move will address stigma, but the number of people seeking treatment will increase because it would be addressing stigma as well. It would also address the racial injustice in our drug laws.
If one tracks the history of our drugs laws, one knows that they are racist. The report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs goes into some detail about the racist attitudes that underpinned government action to criminalize certain drugs, including a fear, at one time, of Chinese Canadians.
As the Canadian HIV Legal Network has recently written, “from 2014 to 2019, police in Canada made more than 540,000 arrests for drug offences; 69% of those were for simple drug possession.
It is troubling that Black and other racialized communities in Canada are disproportionately charged, prosecuted and incarcerated for drug offences, depriving them of their rights to equality and non-discrimination in the criminal legal system, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, security of the person, and the highest attainable standard of health. As the report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System concluded more than two decades ago, “Persons described as black are the most over-representated among prisoners charged with drug offences”.
More simply, we fear different drugs today, because we used to fear different people. While we have shifted the purpose of the law beyond explicit racism and xenophobia, its application continues to represent a racial injustice.
Now, we have seen some government action. We have seen an expansion of safe consumption sites, and we have seen 40 safe consumption sites approved. Very recently, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada updated its guidelines to say very explicitly, “Resort to a criminal prosecution of the possession of a controlled substance...should generally be reserved for the most serious manifestations of the offence” where it is for personal use under section 4 of the CDSA.
Our federal government has implemented pilot projects towards safer supply and has funded pilot projects, including here in our east end at South Riverdale. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to address the opioid crisis through a public health approach, including $150 million in budget 2018 to expand treatment options, and millions more towards a national public education campaign to end the stigma that surrounds people who use drugs. These are unquestionably worthy actions.
We should pause here because we have our federal government spending millions to end the stigma for people who use drugs, but at the same time, we are refusing to remove the criminal sanction that perpetuates that stigma more than any other policy. It is cognitive dissonance in action, and it cost lives.
I will explain what Bill C-236 does. To begin, I moved Bill C-235 and Bill C-236 at the same time because Bill C-235 simply removes the criminal offence for simple possession. This is in keeping with those public health experts, and the international evidence, who are saying that simple possession for personal use should not be a criminal sanction.
While fully removing drug possession for personal use from the CDSA is my preferred approach, and it certainly has the support of experts, in the end, a private member's bill has one opportunity to move a law forward. It is very important to me that this conversation moves to committee and that we see a change in our law.
To that end, Bill C-236 is a more modest change in our law that seeks to address stigma and end the unnecessary criminalization and incarceration of people who use drugs. Ultimately the bill seeks to obtain government support to accomplish those ends.
Very simply, the bill creates an evidence-based diversion framework to ensure that before police officers or prosecutors move forward with laying or pursuing a charge, they must consider whether it is sufficient to give a warning, to refer an individual in need to a public health agency or provider, or pursue alternative measures to incarceration. It was developed in keeping with the model of diversion found in our Youth Criminal Justice Act.
Similar to the new guidelines to prosecutors, it seeks to ensure that police and prosecutorial discretion is exercised with the evidence in mind. If this bill passes, that discretion must be exercised in keeping with a set of guiding principles. I think they are important, so I will simply read them:
(a) problematic substance use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue;
(b) interventions should be founded on evidence-based best practices and should aim to protect the health, dignity and human rights of individuals who use drugs, and to reduce harm to those individuals, their families and their communities;
(c) criminal sanctions imposed in respect of the possession of drugs for personal use can increase the stigma associated with drug use and are not consistent with established public health evidence;
(d) interventions should address the root causes of problematic substance use, including by encouraging measures such as education, treatment, aftercare, rehabilitation and social reintegration; and
(e) judicial resources are more appropriately used in relation to offences that pose a risk to public safety.
The criminalization of drug possession for personal use only harms the very people we want to help. It is not only ineffective, it costs lives. We need a new approach. We need to follow the evidence to save lives.