An OPP officer displays bags containing fentanyl as Ontario Provincial Police host a news conference in Vaughan, Ont., on February 23, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Commons committee urges feds to consider decriminalizing simple drug possession

Commons health committee is also recommending a public-awareness campaign

The House of Commons health committee is urging the federal government to look at Portugal’s decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs and examine how the idea could be “positively applied in Canada.”

The committee made the recommendation, among others, in report produced after committee members travelled across Canada to witness the impacts of methamphetamine use and its rapid increase in some communities.

Many witnesses who appeared before the committee called for the federal government to work with provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous communities and law-enforcement agencies to decriminalize simple possession of small quantities of illicit substances, the report says.

It also says the committee heard during its informal meetings across the country that even some health-care providers have negative attitudes toward people with substance-use problems.

The report details testimony from health experts who told the committee that decriminalizing simple possession is necessary because problematic substance use and addiction is a health problem for users and criminalization prevents them from seeking help.

“Witnesses recommended that the federal government examine the implementation of the Portuguese model of decriminalization of the possession of illicit substances, which included a scaling-up of treatment programs and the creation of diversion programs for offenders who commit crimes related to their substance-use disorders,” the report says.

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The federal Liberals have faced mounting pressure from health advocates and even members of their own caucus to pursue decriminalization of simple possession.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said he is planning to introduce a private member’s bill built on the idea that Canada should treat drug use as a health issue and not as a crime. It will include removing penalties for simple possession of any drug from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The bill is vanishingly unlikely to get anywhere before the fall election, but Erskine-Smith said he will look to re-introduce the bill in a new Parliament should he be re-elected. He said other jurisdictions have found that removing criminal sanctions for drug possession means more people seek treatment.

“I think it is incumbent on me and like-minded members of Parliament to continue to raise the issue and continue to draw attention to the evidence if it means saving lives,” he said.

The Commons health committee is also recommending a public-awareness campaign to provide “credible and reliable information” about the potential harms of methamphetamine use and the risks posed by the toxicity of the illegal supply.

Its report details how the rise of meth across the country highlights the complexity of addressing problematic substance use and addiction in Canada, with witnesses explaining its use is caused by a set of “interwoven factors” including harmful childhood experiences, poor mental health, poverty and homelessness.

The committee heard that methamphetamine can be particularly destructive for some people because it’s highly addictive and can bring on psychosis, the report said, and many people who use the drug don’t know the havoc it can cause.

The Conservatives on the health committee issued a dissenting report saying that several other things need to be done before decriminalization, pointing out a number of differences between Canada and Portugal.

There are 170 recovery facilities for 11 million people in Portugal. The country offers mental-health supports and mandatory education in schools and for the public regarding the harms of drugs, the Conservatives say, and it is unrealistic to assume Canada could achieve the same results without implementing several of those mandatory elements.

“Canada does not have the recovery capacity available currently,” the dissenting report said. “We also do not have enough available and affordable mental-health supports, mandatory education regarding harms, or a correctional system that could mimic Portugal’s.”

In the summer of 2017, Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould — then the Liberal ministers of health and justice —travelled to Portugal to learn more about the country’s approach to drugs.

Portugal can teach Canada a “great deal” about how taking a public-health approach to drug policy helps the justice system work better, Wilson-Raybould said in a statement at the time.

So far, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to pursue decriminalization.

Last April, at a convention in Halifax, the Liberal rank and file passed a non-binding resolution on decriminalizing simple possession and consumption of all illicit drugs; Trudeau immediately shot the idea down.

“On that particular issue, as I’ve said, it’s not part of our plans,” he said.

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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