NDP decries defeat of national drug decriminalization bill: ‘Blood on their hands’

Click to play video: 'B.C. to decriminalize possession of some hard drugs amid opioid crisis'
B.C. to decriminalize possession of some hard drugs amid opioid crisis
WATCH: The federal government is taking action to address Canada's opioid crisis in one of its worst-hit provinces, allowing British Columbia to decriminalize possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs for personal use, beginning in early 2023. Keith Baldrey explains why officials believe the move could help curb skyrocketting overdose deaths, and how it represents a dramatic shift for Canada's drug policy. – May 31, 2022

Liberal and Conservative MPs have blocked an attempt by the federal NDP to decriminalize personal possession of some illicit drugs all across Canada as a way to stem the rising death toll from substance abuse.

On Wednesday, a majority of MPs voted against the NDP’s private members’ bill, which would have repealed a provision in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that makes it an offence to possess certain drugs — the same exemption granted to B.C. one day ago.

Leader Jagmeet Singh said he is disappointed the government has refused to provide a national approach to the toxic drug supply crisis, which has caused tens of thousands of deaths across Canada.

“The lack of federal leadership will absolutely cost lives. It’s very disappointing that this government thinks it’s okay to download the responsibility for a national public health crisis onto premiers and municipal leaders,” Singh said in a statement after the vote.

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On Tuesday, B.C. was granted a three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for people who possess a small amount of certain illicit substances for personal use.

The substances remain illegal, but adults who have 2.5 grams or less of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized.

According to Singh, there is no justification to approve an exemption for just one province while the rest of the country is left with laws that continue to treat possession of controlled substances as a criminal offence.

“It literally makes no sense to exempt one province and not the rest on a matter that is a Criminal Code matter,” Singh had said ahead of the vote.

The Criminal Code is a national law applied uniformly in each province and territory, he said.

“To say you’re going to criminalize people if you live east of the Rockies is somehow OK, but apply a health-based approach in B.C. — as much as I love my province, and I think this is great for B.C. — it makes no sense. There is really no justification.”

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Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns sponsored the NDP’s Bill C-216, which aimed to mirror the exemption granted this week to B.C., and apply it to every province and territory in Canada. The bill also aimed to expunge certain drug-related convictions and to remove the criminal records of those with previous drug convictions from any federal judicial archives.

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The NDP bill also called on the government to adopt a national strategy on a safe supply of drugs to address the harm caused by problematic substance use.

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During the announcement of the B.C. exemption on Tuesday, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett spoke strongly in favour of opting for more progressive approaches to help solve the opioid crisis in Canada, including embracing decriminalization and moving toward a “regulated safe supply of drugs.”

But she indicated she would not vote in favour of the NDP bill, despite the support her government has given to British Columbia in adopting a harm-reduction approach to substance abuse and drug-related deaths.

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“I have some discomfort with the bill because I think it doesn’t put in place the guardrails around implementation,” she told reporters in Vancouver Tuesday.

“We just want to thank Gord Johns for all of the work he’s done in raising this conversation and making it really important. But in terms of our international obligations, in terms of what needs to be there in terms of the safeguards, I think… starting by starting with British Columbia is a prudent way to go.”

Johns took strong issue with this Wednesday, saying a national approach is needed to deal with the toxic drug supply crisis.

He noted his bill mirrors calls from an expert task force on substance use convened by Health Canada that issued a report last year saying “criminalization of simple possession causes harms to Canadians and needs to end.”

“We know incrementalism kills. We know that the current patchwork across Canada isn’t working,” Johns said.

“Policies can’t stop at the Rockies. The lives of the families of the people who have been lost on the other side of the Rockies need to be heard, they matter, their communities matter,” Johns said.

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Before the vote, Johns said MPs and the prime minister would have “blood on their hands” if they voted against his proposed legislation.

The bill was defeated by a vote of 248-71, with support from Bloc Quebecois MPs and some Liberal MPs. When the final tally was announced, a supporter in the public gallery began shouting an emotional disapproval of the result.

“Shame on you,” she yelled from the gallery.

Christine Nayler, a mother whose 34-year-old son Ryan died from toxic drug poisoning, had begged MPs in the House of Commons to let the NDP bill pass, so it could go to committee for further study.

“What our country needs is not half-measures or pilot projects. We need a country-wide, comprehensive health-based approach to address this public health emergency,” she said during a press conference prior to the vote.

“As a mother forever changed by our country’s failed drug policies, from the bottom of my heart I stand before you today and I beg you for Ryan… This is not a partisan issue. This is a public health emergency. I ask you to come together, as you did with COVID-19. The cost of not supporting this bill is too high. We are losing a whole generation of Canadians.”

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Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to leave the door slightly open on Wednesday to the notion of taking a pan-Canadian approach to drug decriminalization, saying the federal government will not pursue it with other jurisdictions without putting “the system and supports in place.”

Trudeau said the government took the approach it did with B.C. by building capacity and offering many ways to support people, such as projects offering a safe supply of illicit drugs.

— with a file from The Canadian Press.

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