People hold signs during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

People hold signs during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

NDP lawmaker tables bill to decriminalize drug use as overdose deaths soar

Don Davies introduced a private member’s bill Thursday that would scrap Criminal Code provisions on drug possession, expunge criminal records for the same offence and mandate low-barrier access to safe supply

An NDP lawmaker is tabling legislation to decriminalize drug use in Canada, seeking to treat it as a health issue amid a lethal opioid crisis.

New Democrat health critic Don Davies introduced a private member’s bill Thursday that would scrap Criminal Code provisions on drug possession, expunge criminal records for the same offence and mandate low-barrier access to a safe supply of medically regulated substances.

The legislation is unlikely to reach the debate stage, but Davies says current federal policy is causing “unneeded deaths,” despite moving in the right direction recently.

“Decades of criminalization, a toxic illicit street supply and a lack of timely access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services have caused this ongoing catastrophe. It’s time to treat substance use and addiction as the health issues they truly are,” he said at a news conference.

The Liberal government has proposed to relax penalties for personal drug possession, tabling a bill in February that would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences and require police and prosecutors to consider alternative measures for possession cases, including diversion to addiction-treatment programs.

Health Canada is also working with Vancouver on the city’s request for exemption from criminal provisions on simple possession of small amounts of drugs. The city wants people to be allowed to carry a three-day supply of various drugs.

Vancouver has been the epicentre of an opioid crisis that saw British Columbia record 1,176 illicit drug overdose deaths in 2020 — the highest ever in a single year — and more than 7,000 deaths since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016.

Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition at Simon Fraser University, said the Liberals have taken “good” but incremental steps, with the NDP bill representing a fundamentally different approach to drug use rooted in public health.

“Our current drug policy is not fit for purpose anymore. It never was. It was built on punishment, criminalization, imbued with colonial values,” he said in an interview.

“It’s an old way of seeing the world. It’s an old way of viewing and treating people who use substances that are not the traditional ones, like alcohol and tobacco, which are actually very harmful.”

Leslie McBain of Moms Stop the Harm said putting drug users behind bars offers no productive outcomes for inmates or society.

“Being incarcerated for possession never improved health, never stopped addiction. What incarceration often does is make people sick and vulnerable. It throws their families into chaos, inflicts legal fees. There is nothing about it that works,” she said at the news conference.

Criminalizing drug use costs taxpayers money and contributes to a shroud of “fear, shame, stigma,” she said, as well as challenges securing housing and employment.

The opioid epidemic has seen more than 20,000 Canadians die from toxic drug overdoses.

“My son Jordan has been gone seven years, but I could cry right now,” McBain said.

Drug users face greater dangers as the third wave of COVID-19 forces harm reduction sites and outreach programs to curtail their services, leaving at-risk communities out in the cold.

In B.C., deaths linked to the synthetic opioid fentanyl had been on the decline for more than a year until last April, when monthly numbers routinely began to double those of 2019.

Opioid-related deaths countrywide could climb as high as 2,000 per quarter in the first half of 2021, far surpassing the peak of nearly 1,200 in the last three months of 2018, according to modelling from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Canada’s ongoing border restrictions have disrupted the flow of illicit drugs, and dealers looking to stretch their limited supplies are more apt to add potentially toxic adulterants.

Benzodiazepines have been detected in drugs circulating in parts of several provinces. Users can be difficult to rouse and slow to respond to naloxone — the drug that reverses opioid overdoses — and more likely to overdose when fentanyl or other opioids are also in the mix.

The B.C. government has made several commitments to helping drug users, with some supervised consumption sites in the province, as well as overdose prevention sites in many cities.

“A toxic, illicit drug supply is killing far too many and we need to ensure a safer supply to save lives,” Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said in an interview.

Governments should “treat patients as patients and not as criminals,” he said, adding that he supports the NDP bill’s principles.

Guy Felicella, a peer clinical adviser with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and the BC Centre on Substance Use, has long called for regulated supply of opioids so that they’re not only decriminalized but clean.

“Punishment, enforcement, stigma drove me from the community of Richmond into the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and buried me there for over two decades,” he said.

“This is not a war on drugs, it’s a war on people, poverty, homelessness. And it’s killing people.”

In 2018, the federal government allocated $150 million in one-time emergency funding for provinces and territories to expand treatment services. The federal government announced Wednesday it would spend $7.7 million to expand safe supply with three projects in Toronto that will provide a pharmaceutical alternative to illegal opioids.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police recommended in July 2020 that all police agencies in Canada recognize substance abuse and addiction as health issues and endorsed the decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Drugs

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A memorial to former Abbotsford and RCMP police officer Shinder Kirk in Cedar, B.C. Kirk died in a car accident on Cedar Road in December 2018. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Trial begins in Nanaimo for man involved in car crash that killed retired police sergeant

RCMP accident reconstructionist takes stand in trial of Conrad Nikolaus Wetten

Next week Nanaimo singer Laura Kelsey is releasing her new single A Foolish Thing and its accompanying music video. (Video still courtesy Greg Nuspel)
Nanaimo singer joined by wolf, dancers in new music video

‘A Foolish Thing’ is Laura Kelsey’s first professionally made single in seven years

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson announces an app that is intended to connect children and youths with mental health and addictions services. (B.C. Government image/Flickr)
5 years in the making: Mental health app for youths launches in B.C.

The province provided $1.6 million to fund virtual care platform

Two semi trucks collided on the Nanaimo Parkway just north of Northfield Road on Wednesday morning, May 5. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
UPDATE: Semi truck driver now in stable condition following this week’s crash on Nanaimo Parkway

RCMP repeat call for any dashcam footage around 7:40 a.m. on Wednesday, May 5

Phone companies have the expertise to be able to address the problem of phone scams, says letter writer. (Stock photo)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Phone companies should crack down on scammers

It’s time for these companies to be held accountable, says letter writer

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson announces an app that is intended to connect children and youths with mental health and addictions services. (B.C. Government image/Flickr)
5 years in the making: Mental health app for youths launches in B.C.

The province provided $1.6 million to fund virtual care platform

A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
A sign indicating face coverings are required by the establishment is pictured on the front door of a business in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to start releasing neighbourhood-specific COVID numbers after data leak

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun show cases broken down by neighbourhoods

Ladysmith RCMP safely escorted the black bear to the woods near Ladysmith Cemetary. (Town of Ladysmith/Facebook photo)
Black bear tranquillized, relocated after wandering around residential Ladysmith

A juvenile black bear was spotted near 2nd Avenue earlier Friday morning

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix update B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, April 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count creeps up, seven more deaths

445 people in hospital, 157 in intensive care

Summerland’s positive test rate is much higher than surrounding local health areas, according to internal BC CDC documents. (BC CDC)
Summerland 3rd behind Surrey, Abbotsford in daily per capita COVID-19 cases

Interior Health is rolling out additional vaccine availability to the community

Amazon is pausing its Prime Day marketing event in Canada this year amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at its facilities in Ontario. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Amazon Prime Day halted in Canada due to COVID-19 outbreaks in warehouses

The event was postponed to protect the health and safety of employees and customers, the company says

Ally Thomas, 12, seen in an undated family handout photo, died on April 14 from a suspected overdose. Her family says they are frustrated more public supports weren't available when they tried to get her help. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Minister says suspected overdose death of 12-year-old pushing B.C. to ‘do better’

Minister Sheila Malcolmson of Mental Health and Addictions says the government is working ‘as hard as we can’ to build a system of care for youths

At this Highway 3 check point, police officers will be asking for identification from drivers, documentation regarding the driver’s name and address, and the purpose for the driver’s travel. (RCMP)
No fines handed out at 1st COVID-19 roadblock as checks move across B.C.

Cpl. Chris Manseau says a total of 127 vehicles were stopped at a roadblock in the Manning Park area

A spectator looks on as the Olympic Caldron is relit in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, February 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Small majority of B.C. residents in favour of a Vancouver 2030 Olympic bid: survey

A new survey shows a split over the possibility of public money being spent to organize and host the winter games

Most Read