Parliament began sitting again on Jan. 31, facing its first full agenda since the late summer election.
Most committees will be meeting for the first time and we will see the first private member’s bill debates. I’d like to highlight some of those private member’s bills in my upcoming columns, since some could produce important new legislation that makes Canada a better place for all or, at the very least, send powerful messages to the government.
One of the first of these bills up for debate comes from Gord Johns, the NDP MP for Courtenay-Alberni. It is Bill C-216, the Health-based Approach to Substance Use Act. Bill C-216 tackles one of the major issues of our time, the toxic drug overdose crisis that is needlessly killing thousands of Canadians of all ages and secondarily driving a spree of property crime across the country.
Gord Johns has listened to the calls from public health professionals, legal experts and police departments from all over Canada to propose a solution to this crisis that will save lives and make our communities safer.
What all these experts agree on is that substance use is a health problem, not a criminal problem. To solve it we have to eliminate the criminalization of simple drug possession and turn to health-based solutions.
The bill has three parts. The first decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs meant for personal use while retaining criminal charges for drug trafficking. This would remove barriers for drug users who might otherwise seek help with recovery without the fear of being thrown in jail.
The second part expunges the criminal records that are solely related to minor possession convictions. Struggling with addiction is a herculean task by itself but it becomes almost impossible with a criminal record that often makes it very difficult to get a job or even find a place to live. Eliminating those criminal records through expungement clears away many serious barriers that people face when trying to get back to a normal life.
The third part turns to the health-centred solutions we need to find, and since health is under provincial jurisdiction, this bill instructs the federal government to develop a strategy with the provinces to do just that.
The bill states that this strategy, among other things, must address the root causes of problematic substance use, ensure a safer regulated supply of drugs, provide universal access to recovery, treatment and harm reduction services, and reduce the stigma associated with substance use.
There are good examples from around the world where this approach has had a huge positive impact to communities facing an addiction crisis. One of those examples is Portugal. I recently had the opportunity to talk to the Consul General for Portugal about her country’s experience. Portugal decriminalized drug use 20 years ago and since then has seen dramatic drops in overdose deaths, problematic drug use, and drug-related crime. More importantly, there has been a big cultural shift in how Portuguese view drug use and addiction.
Everyone agrees that we need to dramatically change the way we are fighting the toxic drug overdose crisis. I think Gord John’s bill would provide most of the ingredients necessary for such a shift. The rest will be up to communities to build on that foundation so that those who use drugs or are addicted to drugs can address the root causes and rebuild their lives—finding employment, finding homes and returning to their families.
Richard Cannings, MP South Okanagan-West Kootenay.