Liberal government moves too slowly to treat drug crisis as a health issue, Liberal MPs say

The federal government must move faster to really treat drug use as a health problem, say some Liberal MPs who voted to study a defeated opposition bill that would have decriminalized drug possession across Canada.

At the same time, those MPs point to examples of government progress, examples described as inadequate by advocates, such as a recent decision to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in British Columbia for three years beginning in January.

Canada is in the midst of an overdose crisis, fueled by a drug supply tainted with powerful opioids. More than 7,500 people died last year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which estimates deaths may remain high or rise this year.

“I don’t think we’re treating drug use as a health issue as quickly as we need to given the scale of the crisis,” said Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Beaches-East York).

“I think we should not only go faster and further, but we should also bring Canadians with us and not just follow the polls, so to speak,” he said. “We cannot underestimate the importance of educating Canadians on an issue like this.”

Erskine-Smith argued that the government has a plan, but “it’s not as ambitious as it should be.” He said there needs to be much larger increases in funding for harm reduction strategies.

He is one of 14 Liberal MPs who voted last month in favor of a bill by a private member of the New Democrat MP, Gord Johns, which would have decriminalized simple possession and required the government to put in place a national strategy to tackle substance use disorders.

Had the vote been successful, the bill would have been sent to committee for study and hearing from experts before returning to the House of Commons for a final vote. But the bill died after the government and most of the Liberal caucus voted against it along with the Conservatives.

Experts and people who use drugs have long called for decriminalization as an important tool in tackling the toxic drug supply crisis, along with safe supply and increased access to supports.

“For me, I voted yes because I want us to go faster and do more,” said another Liberal MP from Toronto, Julie Dzerowicz (Davenport).

She said she doesn’t want just decriminalization, but a model that involves all levels of government that includes addressing the potential underlying problems of a person who uses drugs and discouraging drug use.

“I’m not looking to penalize people who have a substance abuse problem because they’ve been on painkillers for a while and all of a sudden it’s the only thing that really helps them lead a normal life,” he said.

“And we don’t have anywhere near the supports and funding that we need for those who have mental health issues.”

Toronto MPs Michael Coteau (Don Valley East), who recently became co-chair of the parliamentary black caucus, and Julie Dabrusin (Toronto-Danforth) said they wish Johns’ bill had made it to committee so that issues could be explored in depth.

“I just think it was worth having a conversation and I support anything that looks at ways to give people treatment instead of punishment, which is sometimes just counterproductive,” Coteau said.

Dabrusin said he didn’t necessarily agree with the wording of Johns’s bill, but thought it presented a good opportunity to study a possible framework for decriminalization.

“I thought I would vote in favor before I knew what the government’s position would be on it,” he said. “Ultimately, I represent my community. That’s something I’ve heard about, I’ve talked to families who have lost loved ones.”

Quebec MP Soraya Martínez Ferrada said in a statement that “the status quo is not sustainable. Change is urgently needed across Canada.” She said the Johns bill lacked implementation details and that she wanted to see it discussed further in committee.

Ron McKinnon was the only Liberal MP to vote for the bill from British Columbia, the epicenter of the crisis. He said in a statement that he has long advocated for limited exemptions to decriminalization, “and I voted for this bill to affirm that approach.”

Yukon MP Brendan Hanley, the territory’s former medical director of health, previously told the Star that he supported the bill because “we need to open every lever we have” to deal with the crisis.

Three Liberal MPs — Halifax’s Andy Fillmore, Quebec’s Joël Lightbound and former Foreign Minister Marc Garneau — declined to comment, and four MPs did not respond to requests for comment: New Brunswick’s Jenica Atwin and Wayne Long, New Brunswick’s Heath MacDonald PEI and Michael McLeod of the Northwest Territories.

Johns said in an interview that the Liberal government has no plan and has been taking a gradual approach to the crisis.

“If they want to poke holes in this bill, then where is their bill? They have had six years,” she said. “It shouldn’t come from me, a private member’s bill, to address your failure.”

Liberal MPs who spoke to the Star responded that the government is taking action, including introducing legislation to try to keep drug possession cases out of the criminal justice system, but stopping short of decriminalization, and granting BC the temporary exemption of drugs. possession charges for small amounts.

That is “inappropriate” as it only applies to one province, said Sandra Ka Hon Chu, co-executive director of the HIV Legal Network. She is also a member of a task force that has been advising Toronto Public Health on its own federal waiver application.

“As much as this is a promising start, it really leaves the rest of the country in a jolt because people are still subject to criminalization and surveillance,” he said.


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