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NDP and Greens Push Trudeau to Answer Vancouver’s Call to Decriminalize Drugs

Critics decry ‘incremental baby steps’ in a nationwide ‘life-and-death crisis.’

Christopher Guly 22 Dec 2020TheTyee.ca

Tyee frequent contributor Christopher Guly is an Ottawa-based journalist and member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Vancouver city council passed a unanimous resolution last month to ask the federal government to decriminalize personal possession of illicit drugs within the city’s boundaries “in order to address urgent public health concerns caused by the overdose crisis and COVID-19.” But Don Davies, the NDP member of Parliament for Vancouver Kingsway, wants Ottawa to go even further in addressing rising drug overdose deaths in what he considers to be the second pandemic playing out in Canada.

“There have been shocking, growing and record-breaking deaths, and we know what the problem is: the toxic street supply by organized crime,” said Davies, a lawyer by training, who serves as the federal NDP health critic, in an interview.

“The foundational answer to the problem is to decriminalize and regulate access to drugs across the country.”

In July, he and Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan, the NDP deputy health critic, wrote to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to call for a nationwide exemption that would end enforcement of prohibitions on drug possession in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The MPs want Hajdu to use her authority under Section 56 of the act, which grants the health minister the power to issue an exemption from any part of the legislation “for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”

“In tandem with this measure, we further urge that you provide ready access to pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply across the country,” said the letter.

Davies said that the letter was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns that were “exacerbating” the opioid crisis and increasing the number of deaths due to overdoses, since, as he said, “addiction is also a disease of isolation.”

Last year, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s public health officer, called for decriminalization in a report. In September, she issued a public health order expanding the number of doctors and nurses able to prescribe “safer pharmaceutical alternatives.”

Henry said the COVID-19 pandemic “has only made the street drug supply in B.C. more toxic than ever, putting people who use drugs at extremely high risk for overdose.”

Davies said the federal NDP’s position on decriminalization was articulated when Jagmeet Singh ran for the leadership in 2017 and referred to his experience as a criminal defence lawyer when he witnessed how the disenfranchised, through poverty, mental-health issues and addiction, were most likely to face charges of possession.

There is now consensus, said Davies, “from chiefs of police to addictions experts to stakeholder groups,” on the need to remove criminal penalties from personal drug use for those struggling with addictions and mainly relying on frequently poisoned drugs obtained on the streets.

Photo submitted.
Vancouver Kingsway MP Don Davies: The way to end the overdose crisis is ‘to decriminalize and regulate access to drugs across the country.’

B.C. has been hit hard by overdose deaths, as statistics from the province’s Coroners Service starkly illustrate. In November, 153 people died of suspected illicit drug toxicity, or about five deaths per day.

By Oct. 31, 1,386 people had died of illicit drug use in B.C. this year. Since the provincial government declared a public health emergency regarding opioid-related overdose deaths in April 2016, 1,536 people have died in Vancouver.

The national numbers are numbing. From January 2016 to June 2020, there were 17,602 apparent opioid toxicity deaths, or nearly 11 per day, and 21,824 opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations, or 13 per day, according to the federal government.

However, Davies said that neither he nor Kwan have heard back from either Hajdu or Blair since the NDP MPs sent their letter.

The federal health minister’s office did respond to The Tyee for comment on Vancouver’s request, however.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the ongoing opioid crisis,” said Hajdu in a statement sent by email. “We have lost too many Canadians to overdose, and all levels of government must redouble our efforts to save lives.

“The federal government has been working with the Government of British Columbia and Mayor [Kennedy] Stewart on options that respond to their local and regional needs, guided by the recommendations of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. We will review this request to address criminal penalties for simple possession of small amounts of controlled substances and will continue our work to get Canadians who use substances the support they need.”

Davies characterized the response as “incremental baby steps when you have a life-and-death crisis” and said that Hajdu and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have “explicitly ruled out” decriminalization — although members of the Liberal Party of Canada voted in favour of doing just that at their national convention in Halifax two years ago.

In a late-summer interview with CBC Radio in Vancouver, Trudeau said his government’s priority is to ensure there is a safe supply of opioids, and characterized the overdose crisis as a “health issue rather than a justice issue.”

Davies is on the same page with Trudeau on those points, but believes the government is demonstrating a “lack of courage” by failing to address criminalization as the driving force behind the crisis, leaving people to obtain drugs from organized crime, which cares little about the users’ health.

“Nobody is saying that drug use is healthy,” said the B.C. MP. “If people are going to be using drugs, do we want to do what we can to make sure they at least have access to drugs of known quality and dosage? Or do we want them buying them in a back alley?”

“Whether someone has an addiction to cocaine or heroin or fentanyl or alcohol or cannabis, it is a health issue. By criminalizing that behaviour, it creates more trauma and punishment, which doesn’t work,” said Davies, who serves as co-chair of the Commons’ global health caucus.

“Twenty-first-century thinking understands that substance-use disorders are social justice issues and health issues. We’re still using 19th-century thinking that treats it as a criminal or immoral act. Our laws reflect outmoded thinking and understanding of why people take substances and why they have difficulties with them. Our drug policy today is a toxic cocktail of myth, racism and economic greed.”

The NDP’s point man when legalizing cannabis was debated in Parliament, Davies said he argued at the time that in terms of use, there is no difference between marijuana and other drugs, such as LSD.

He said the objective in all cases is to take the supply “out of the hands of criminals and remove the stigmatization, and ensure that people get access to safe, regulated, properly packaged products. And we need to substantially beef up our prevention, education and, most importantly, treatment options for substance users.

“If you don’t do that, you’re just putting Band-Aids on a dying patient,” added Davies, who has witnessed the toxic trade in drugs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. “It is immoral when federal policy is causing harm, suffering and death that is avoidable.”

The Tyee unsuccessfully sought comment on Vancouver’s move toward decriminalization from both Alberta MP Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative shadow minister for health, and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet.

However, in its 2019 federal election platform, the Green Party of Canada committed to addressing the opioid crisis as “a health-care issue, not a criminal issue, by declaring a national health emergency and to “recognize that fentanyl contamination is why deaths are more accurately described as poisonings than overdoses.”

The Greens also support the decriminalization of drug possession, along with providing people with access to “a screened supply and the medical support they need to combat their addictions,” said party Leader Annamie Paul in an interview.

“It is not in any way acceptable for people in Canada to die because of opioid poisoning when we have the possibility of preventing that,” she said.

851px version of GreenPartyLeaderAnnamiePaulSafeSupply.jpg
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, left: ‘Our lack of action is causing people to die. But our first step is to stop the poisoning.’ Photo submitted.

Paul is familiar with the opioid-overdose epidemic, having run for a Commons seat twice — in last year’s federal election and in this year’s byelection in October — to represent Toronto Centre, where she was born and where she said the situation is as dire as it is in Vancouver.

“This is the smallest riding in Canada that is very densely populated, with a very high percentage of 911 calls related to opioid overdoses in the country, which are almost always caused by poisoning,” said Paul, who added that she was trained to detect and treat an opioid overdose during the 2019 election campaign.

“This is a health emergency, worsened by the pandemic, and I don’t understand the government’s rationale for not decriminalizing possession and working to create a safe supply of drugs. Our lack of action is causing people to die. But our first step is to stop the poisoning.”

A recent report on opioid-related deaths during the pandemic, prepared in part by Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner, found that during the first 15 weeks of the pandemic in Ontario, 695 people died of a confirmed or suspected opioid-related death, representing a 38-per-cent increase compared to the 15 weeks immediately preceding the pandemic.

The report also identified “trends toward more opioid-related deaths among people who are using drugs alone, outdoors, and in hotel/motel settings during the pandemic,” likely related to physical distancing measures.

Paul said that mental-health and community-housing support is not sufficiently available in Toronto Centre for those struggling with addictions. “We know what we need to do. Now it’s just a matter of having the political leadership to do it. This is one of those areas where government can educate the public and explain why this is not a criminal matter, but a health matter — and a social justice issue.”

The Green leader, who is also a lawyer, applauded Vancouver council for reaching out to the federal government for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and hopes Toronto would make a similar request. The Tyee contacted the office of John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, and asked whether the city would follow Vancouver’s lead.

“The mayor has been clear in that the opioid crisis is an urgent and growing concern in the city and that it requires proper attention by all governments. That is why the city is working to help those with mental health challenges and addictions to make sure they get the health care they need,” said Lawvin Hadisi, Tory’s press secretary, in response by email.

“The city continues to implement its Toronto Overdose Action Plan, expand the safer supply programs and utilize supervised injection services, which have proven to work in reducing the number of deaths from opioids.”

She said that Tory “continues to focus on increasing the supply of treatment programs and facilities which are much-needed in addressing this issue. The same is true for the need for more supportive housing.”

Hadisi said there are ongoing discussions concerning the decriminalization of illicit drugs at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, and that Tory is “willing to discuss any options that are introduced by medical health professionals that will help save lives.”

She added that the mayor is “focused on getting more money from the provincial and federal government to address this ongoing health crisis through treatment programs — which should be a much bigger part of our provincial health-care system — and supportive housing to ensure those suffering from addiction and mental health issues get the help they need.”  [Tyee]

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