An OPP officer displays bags containing fentanyl as Ontario Provincial Police host a news conference in Vaughan, Ont., on February 23, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Commons committee urges feds to consider decriminalizing simple drug possession

Commons health committee is also recommending a public-awareness campaign

The House of Commons health committee is urging the federal government to look at Portugal’s decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs and examine how the idea could be “positively applied in Canada.”

The committee made the recommendation, among others, in report produced after committee members travelled across Canada to witness the impacts of methamphetamine use and its rapid increase in some communities.

Many witnesses who appeared before the committee called for the federal government to work with provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous communities and law-enforcement agencies to decriminalize simple possession of small quantities of illicit substances, the report says.

It also says the committee heard during its informal meetings across the country that even some health-care providers have negative attitudes toward people with substance-use problems.

The report details testimony from health experts who told the committee that decriminalizing simple possession is necessary because problematic substance use and addiction is a health problem for users and criminalization prevents them from seeking help.

“Witnesses recommended that the federal government examine the implementation of the Portuguese model of decriminalization of the possession of illicit substances, which included a scaling-up of treatment programs and the creation of diversion programs for offenders who commit crimes related to their substance-use disorders,” the report says.

READ MORE: Canada first in the world to approve injectable hydromorphone to treat opioid addiction

The federal Liberals have faced mounting pressure from health advocates and even members of their own caucus to pursue decriminalization of simple possession.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said he is planning to introduce a private member’s bill built on the idea that Canada should treat drug use as a health issue and not as a crime. It will include removing penalties for simple possession of any drug from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The bill is vanishingly unlikely to get anywhere before the fall election, but Erskine-Smith said he will look to re-introduce the bill in a new Parliament should he be re-elected. He said other jurisdictions have found that removing criminal sanctions for drug possession means more people seek treatment.

“I think it is incumbent on me and like-minded members of Parliament to continue to raise the issue and continue to draw attention to the evidence if it means saving lives,” he said.

The Commons health committee is also recommending a public-awareness campaign to provide “credible and reliable information” about the potential harms of methamphetamine use and the risks posed by the toxicity of the illegal supply.

Its report details how the rise of meth across the country highlights the complexity of addressing problematic substance use and addiction in Canada, with witnesses explaining its use is caused by a set of “interwoven factors” including harmful childhood experiences, poor mental health, poverty and homelessness.

The committee heard that methamphetamine can be particularly destructive for some people because it’s highly addictive and can bring on psychosis, the report said, and many people who use the drug don’t know the havoc it can cause.

The Conservatives on the health committee issued a dissenting report saying that several other things need to be done before decriminalization, pointing out a number of differences between Canada and Portugal.

There are 170 recovery facilities for 11 million people in Portugal. The country offers mental-health supports and mandatory education in schools and for the public regarding the harms of drugs, the Conservatives say, and it is unrealistic to assume Canada could achieve the same results without implementing several of those mandatory elements.

“Canada does not have the recovery capacity available currently,” the dissenting report said. “We also do not have enough available and affordable mental-health supports, mandatory education regarding harms, or a correctional system that could mimic Portugal’s.”

In the summer of 2017, Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould — then the Liberal ministers of health and justice —travelled to Portugal to learn more about the country’s approach to drugs.

Portugal can teach Canada a “great deal” about how taking a public-health approach to drug policy helps the justice system work better, Wilson-Raybould said in a statement at the time.

So far, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to pursue decriminalization.

Last April, at a convention in Halifax, the Liberal rank and file passed a non-binding resolution on decriminalizing simple possession and consumption of all illicit drugs; Trudeau immediately shot the idea down.

“On that particular issue, as I’ve said, it’s not part of our plans,” he said.

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Local Liberal MP Jati Sidhu says he forgives Trudeau for brownface photos

Sidhu says Trudeau ‘didn’t know any better’ and that photos will prompt discussion

Local Liberal candidate says ad showing him with Abbotsford police officer was ‘not acceptable’

Jati Sidhu said advertisement only appeared for 30 minutes and was created by Montreal company

Prospera and Westminster credit unions approved for proposed merger

Abbotsford- and Surrey-based companies now take matter to membership vote

Pay raise hike closer to reality for Fraser Cascade trustees

Remuneration will more than double if change adopted

‘I just can’t believe it’: Agassiz swimmer brings home six medals from seniors games

Patti Komar won three gold and three silver medals in her first competition in 48 years

VIDEO: B.C.’s famous cat Grandpa Mason has died

The story of the feral cat that started fostering kittens touched people around the world

Vancouver police get green light to use drones for investigations

Drones will be used to investigate motor vehicle collisions, crime scene analysis and more

Trudeau seeks meeting with Singh to apologize for blackface, brownface photos

‘I will be apologizing to him personally as a racialized Canadian,’ Trudeau said Friday

Charges stayed against Alberta RCMP officer in alleged off-duty Whistler assault

Const. Vernon Hagen instead completed an alternative measures program

Indian teachers that inspired Super 30 movie talk about hope

Movie is based on international best-selling book by B.C. doctor

UPDATE: Abbotsford erases skate park graffiti mural honouring student killed in car crash

Many in community angry at city’s move after saying art wouldn’t be immediately removed

VIDEO: Fire destroys Williams Lake strip club targeted by past arson attempts

Diamonds and Dust Entertainment Lounge destroyed by fire, as well as New World Tea and Coffee House

Second bat found at Greater Victoria elementary school tests positive for rabies

Island Health confirms second rabies case, this time in Saanich

B.C. man guilty of first-degree murder in Yukon killing

Edward James Penner, 22, was given the mandatory life sentence for the 2017 slaying of 25-year-old Adam Cormack

Most Read