MPs on Vancouver Island held consultation in Nanaimo last week as the federal NDP tries to drum up support for a bill to decriminalize drug possession.
The NDP’s critic for mental health and addictions, Gord Johns, and Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Lisa Marie Barron met with representatives from the Canadian Mental Health Association and other social service agencies on Friday, March 11.
Johns is holding consultation across the country after bringing forward a bill to decriminalize drug possession, provide a path for expungement of criminal records related to drug possession charges, and to develop a national strategy to manage overdose risk.
“We need to start treating it as a health emergency and not a criminal one,” said Barron. “How can we de-stigmatize the ability for people to access supports? We know that that is a huge barrier for individuals who use substances to access supports, is that de-stigmatization.”
Johns said 75 per cent of people dying of drug overdoses are dying alone at home, and he said that indicates people aren’t “coming out of the shadows” to seek harm-reduction supports.
“Using substances is like Russian roulette right now,” Johns said. “It’s a death sentence because of the poisoned drug supply.”
Johns said Health Canada’s expert task force on substance use made some “sound recommendations” last year and he said his bill reflects those recommendations. The bill has already received initial debate in the House of Commons and Johns will be travelling to Toronto, Montreal and other places between now and May – when the bill is expected to receive a second round of debate and a vote – to talk to stakeholders and try to get across the “sense of urgency” on the issue.
“Community members, people who use substances, organizations, they’re all talking about the implications of changing this conversation and starting to save lives,” Barron said. “It’s an emergency. My mind is blown as to why we haven’t done more to date.”
Following the release of the task force’s report, then-Health Minister Patty Hajdu said in a statement that the federal government was reviewing the recommendations and promised that the report would “inform our next steps in drug policy.”
She acknowledged in the statement that substance use is a health issue and suggested Canada must continue to look at ways to divert people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and toward health and social supports.