Federal government needs to make opioid crisis a priority: MP Hughes

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OTTAWA—Opioid use has caused devastation in Northern Ontario, said Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. MP Hughes and fellow NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) are supporting a private member’s bill that could go a long way to helping save lives. If passed, Bill C-216, put forth by NDP MP Gord Johns from Courtenay-Alberni, British Columbia, would decriminalize drug possession for personal use, expand access to harm reduction and treatment service and expunge criminal records for simple possession of drugs.

“We had asked them (the federal government) in the past to declare a public health emergency on this issue because there’s just as many people dying of opioids as there was of COVID-19. So, Bill C-216 is really more of a health-based approach to substance use and we believe it would save lives.”

The full title for this health-based approach to the Substance Use Act is ‘An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to enact the Expungement of Certain Drug-related Convictions Act and the National Strategy on Substance Use Act.’ A similar private member’s bill was tabled by NDP MP Don Davies (Vancouver-Kingsway) in the previous parliament.

Part three of the bill calls for “the development of a national strategy to address the harm caused by problematic substance use by promoting a comprehensive public health approach.” Given that provinces are responsible for health care services, this would require consultation with provincial governments and other key stakeholders.

“This is something that we’ve been advocating for, for quite some time,” said Ms. Hughes, who pointed out that Northern Ontario has been one of the hardest hit areas in the country by the opioid crisis. “It was even recommended by the government’s own task force.”

“Over the last few years we’ve seen the legalization and support of marijuana to make sure people have access to a safe supply,” she continued. “What we’re asking for right now is to decriminalize the small amounts that people have on their possession for personal use.”

Mr. Johns introduced his private member’s bill on December 15, 2021. “We all know the situation is dire,” he stated. “Over 20,000 Canadians have died of overdoses in the last five years, and in the shadow of COVID-19, the opioid overdose epidemic has rapidly worsened across Canada. Decades of criminalization, a toxic illicit street supply and a lack of timely access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services has caused this escalating epidemic. It is time to treat substance use and addiction as the health issues they truly are, and to address stigma and trauma.”

Last year, the cities of Vancouver and Toronto and the province of British Columbia applied to the federal government for decriminalization of drugs for personal use. This step was supported by the Liberal government’s expert task force on substance use and by law enforcement organizations, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. 

“Practically everyone living in Northern Ontario has been touched by the opioid crisis in some way,” Mr. Angus said in a statement. “It is unthinkable that the Liberal government would leave people to suffer for so long. We clearly need a new approach to tackling this crisis. It’s time the Liberals listened to the experts and took a health-based approach to save lives.”

The NDP was concerned when there was no mention of the opioid crisis in last fall’s throne speech and no mention of it in the mandate letter of the minister of health, Ms. Hughes explained. “It was identified as priority number six for the minister of mental health and addictions. You would think that it would have been a higher priority.”

Ms. Hughes believes the legislation would remove barriers to employment, housing and travel for thousands of Canadians by expunging their criminal records for simple possession of drugs. She also pointed out that even where the rate of drug use has remained consistent among different racial groups, research has shown that Indigenous, black and racialized populations are incarcerated for drug offences at a higher rate than non-racialized people. “That all has to be taken into consideration,” she said. “I think this (legislation) would change their lives as well, drastically, if this was decriminalized.”

“We don’t think it should be a partisan issue,” Ms. Hughes said. “It’s really the right thing to do. We’re hoping that other members of parliament will see the need to do that.”

Bill C-216 was introduced and read the first time on December 15, 2021 and was placed in the order of precedence on February 9.