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Health-Centred Approach to Substance Use Bill

Bill to Amend--Second Reading--Debate Continued

February 9, 2023

Honourable senators, we owe a debt of gratitude to Senator Boniface for introducing Bill S-232, the health-centred approach to substance use act. This legislation aims to make a significant and crucial change to Canada’s approach to drug policy.

As some of you know, my appointment to the Senate was announced on the same day as that of Senator Boniface. Newspapers described us as a “top cop” and a “prisoners’ advocate,” presumptively characterizing us as representing opposite sides of the criminal legal system. However, our very different backgrounds have given us nuanced but similar perspectives and extensive understanding of the limitations of so-called law and order approaches to drug policy.

Like others of you, our respective lives and work have left us all too familiar with the consequences of the current eviscerated social, economic and health care systems, combined with punitive and mandatory drug laws. People have for too long, especially during these last three years, been abandoned to the streets, the criminal, legal and prison systems, and far too many have died for reasons that are wholly preventable.

Senator Boniface and many other advocates have provided extensive evidence that fighting the so-called war on drugs with zero-tolerance criminal law policies has failed. This approach does not deter drug use nor make communities safer. In fact, it makes communities less safe by stigmatizing and marginalizing individuals and increasing their risk of harm by reducing their access to health, social and community services. Zero-tolerance policies push people in need into the margins, onto the streets and into prisons.

Support for decriminalizing drug possession comes from many experts and advocates. More than 50 groups urged the federal government in 2020 and again in 2021 to halt criminal charges for simple drug possession. They were particularly concerned about the spike in overdose deaths associated with COVID-19. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police supports the decriminalization of drug possession as an effective way to both improve public safety and reduce the health harms of substance use. They endorse the use of approaches that reduce drug use recidivism and related criminal activity, while simultaneously improving health outcomes.

Calls have come from across Canada for us to deal with this issue now. B.C. and Vancouver have called on the federal government to create an exemption from criminal penalties for people who possess illicit drugs for personal use. There was a 66% increase in opioid deaths during the pandemic, with a reported average of 20 opioid overdose deaths each and every day in 2021. Over the past two years alone, B.C. faced an average of six deaths every day due to toxic drugs, and 15% of those who overdosed were Indigenous. First Nations people are dying at five times the rate of other B.C. residents. For Indigenous women, it’s even higher.

In Ontario, the deaths among First Nations alone increased by 132%, and the death rate increased by 68% overall in the province. Following the overdose deaths of four young people, as many of you will know, very recently the Ontario Provincial Police, or OPP, warned the public of the arrival of a potent and increasingly lethal strain of opioids here, in central Ontario.

New Brunswick had four times more deaths from overdose than from COVID-19 in 2020. In short, colleagues, at the height of the pandemic, opioid-related deaths exceeded COVID-related deaths. Worse yet, these deaths are preventable.

Ontario’s Big City Mayors group, a coalition with representation from Ontario’s 29 largest cities, along with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health as well as the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Toronto Board of Health, all propose the decriminalization of drugs.

Many provinces want change and are waiting for the federal government to take the lead. After all, criminal law is federal responsibility. In 2021, both the NDP and Green Party included decriminalization in their election platforms, and the NDP has since introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-216. To their credit, the government also appointed a new Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, who says that she is listening to those doing this work.

Bill C-5 urged that substance use issues should be treated with health-based interventions rather than criminalization. All of this suggests that there might be cross-party political willingness to act on this matter now.

Canada’s current punitive approach to drug policy entrenches racism and inequality and contributes to the mass incarceration of the most marginalized. Current legislation disproportionally criminalizes women, those who live below the poverty line, those who are homeless, Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples. B.C.’s public health officer reminds us that the consequences are particularly stark for women, who are often mothers and whose incarceration may lead to family breakdowns, community fractures and intergenerational trauma.

Drug-related charges significantly contribute to the jailing of far too many. For racialized communities, particularly Indigenous communities, this further perpetuates colonial policies and the irreparable harms of the forced state removal of children.

The historical racist criminalization of drugs continues to exacerbate the mass incarceration of all racialized people. For instance, prior to decriminalization of cannabis in Nova Scotia, Canadians of African descent were five times more likely than others to be arrested for possession. In Regina, Indigenous peoples were nine times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. These statistics are in no way surprising when we know that racialized neighbourhoods are also more heavily policed. Meanwhile, they have far fewer supports and resources to enable meaningful and timely treatment.

The relationship between socio-economic status and the link with past trauma, health and addiction is well demonstrated by data that associates homelessness and unemployment with overdoses.

Another awful reality is that overdoses increase exponentially post-incarceration. For too many women, both criminalization and substance use are linked to experiences of violence. Nine in ten Indigenous women in federal penitentiaries have histories of physical and/or sexual abuse and indicate they use drugs to numb themselves to their past experiences of violence and related trauma.

Lack of vital health, social and economic supports means that many women who are victimized are isolated. They are told they are responsible for their situation and are essentially abandoned and deputized to protect themselves. Those who are forced to act, provide for and defend themselves or others in their care too often find themselves charged, criminalized and subject to a range of convictions and punitive sentences.

Colleagues, prisons are not treatment centres. On the contrary, they both exacerbate and create health, mental health and addiction issues.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the Parliamentary Black Caucus rightly demand more robust and proactive measures. Bill S-232 aims to prevent people from being criminalized for using drugs and thereby also ensures that people do not carry the burden and stigma of criminal records as a result of simple possession. Criminal records push or near permanently relegate far too many people to poverty and marginalization as barriers to gainful employment, housing, education, volunteer opportunities and even to mental health and elder care.

Despite positive government intentions such as cannabis decriminalization and Bill C-93 provisions to provide no-cost, expedited record suspensions for simple possession of cannabis, shockingly few people have obtained such relief from historical criminal records. In fact, only 484 marijuana pardons have been granted since the program started in 2019.

This last point further demonstrates an urgent need for the relief that companion Bill S-212 could provide to alleviate those needless barriers and harms experienced by far too many of the most marginalized in Canada. We must also act urgently on additional reforms to complement the vital goals of decriminalization, decarceration and decolonization that this legislation has the potential to advance.

Bill S-232 is an important step forward. It calls on us to ensure that Canada’s drug policy reflects these values by centring health and well-being and by abandoning punitive criminal law approaches that have long proved not merely ineffective but contrary to public good.

There is ample evidence that decriminalization works. Countries such as Portugal have responded to drug crises with decriminalization policies similar to Bill S-232. The result? They have decriminalized and reallocated resources to improved access to treatment and other supportive health care, housing and economic well-being, while also reducing incarceration, all without increases in crime, costs or illicit drug use.

It is time for Canada to show similar leadership. Instead of criminalization, it is time for us to promote equitable and meaningful access to health, social, housing and economic supports for all Canadians — supports that will increase the likelihood of a healthier and safer Canada for all.

Thank you once again, Senator Boniface, for your oversight and for your leadership. To all of you, colleagues, I look forward to working with you to act now in order to move this important bill forward.

Meegwetch. Thank you.

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