Thursday, March 12, 2020

Liberal MP tables drug decriminalization bills

Liberal MP introduces bills to tackle opioid crisis through decriminalization, diversion | Halifax Chronicle Herald - Andrea Gunn:

March 9, 2020 - "According to federal government statistics, more than 14,000 Canadians have died from opioid overdose in the last four years. The situation is so dire, it has caused a stall in the increase in life expectancy for Canadians, according to Statistics Canada, and has even decreased the life expectancy in provinces that have been hit the hardest, such as Alberta and B.C.

"There is a growing body of evidence that one small change could save lives: the decriminalization of possession for personal use. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, the United Nations and the World Health Organization all support the treatment of drug use as a public health issue, not a criminal matter, and support the repeal of laws that criminalize drug use and possession of drugs for personal use.

"In a 2018 paper on the opioid crisis, Canadian Mental Health Association researchers looked to Portugal, which has decriminalized all substances for personal use, and found in the years following decriminalization improved health outcomes, including an increase in the number of people seeking treatment, a decrease in new cases of HIV and AIDS among drug users, and a reduction in the number of deaths associated with substance use.

"This growing body of evidence is why Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith has recently tabled two private member’s bills that look to change drug policy in Canada with the aim of saving lives. One bill, C-235, called the Ending the Stigma of Substance Use Act proposes to delete the simple possession offence in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Possession for the purpose of trafficking would remain illegal....

"Conservatives ... Deputy Opposition Whip John Brassard and Markham-Unionville MP Bob Saroya issued a statement this week warning that the Liberals are looking to 'legalize hard drugs like heroin, crack cocaine and crystal meth'.... 'During the last election campaign, the Liberals denied their secret plan to legalize hard drugs.... But now, a member of Trudeau’s minority Liberal government has introduced legislation to do just that.'

"Erskine-Smith takes issue with what he says is misinformation in his opponents’ attack — for starters, legalization and decriminalization are two different things, he says. But ... Erskine-Smith said he wouldn't expect full support within his own caucus on the matter. 'I’ve seen the prime minister say decriminalization is not where the Canadian public is,' he said...

"[S]o, Erskine-Smith [also] introduced Bill C-236, a compromise that focuses on evidence-based diversion measures for simple possession. The bill would allow police to proceed with criminal charges for drug possession only in situations where it’s insufficient to issue a warning or to refer an individual to a health-care provider.... This means the discretion of police officers to lay criminal charges would be reduced in many situations, such as for first-time recreational users or addicts, where a warning or referral would be best suited, but it does not affect how police deal with trafficking and production. It also still gives the police and prosecutors discretion to proceed with criminal charges, if necessary, in certain circumstances...

"One of the reasons he believes it can get support is the fact that diversion is already a significant part of Canada’s justice system.... Erskine-Smith said codifying these practices in law would provide structure and consistency for the criminal justice system and ensure these measures are being used whenever possible, and not applied unfairly to certain demographics. Moreover, he said, evidence shows that criminal sanctions are a primary stigma and barrier to people seeking treatment, and anything to reduce that would be a step in the right direction."

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