Bill aimed to cut stigma

·3 min read

NDP MP Gord Johns rolled into Winnipeg May 16 as part of his country-wide campaign to drum up support for Bill C-216—the Health-based Approach to Substance Use Act.

The private members bill Johns introduced last year sought to decriminalize simple drug possession, expunge previous convictions and create a national drug strategy to make the drug supply safer and expand treatment programs.

The bill failed to pass second reading in the House of Commons on June 1.

Johns, the federal NDP's health and addictions critic, was joined by Winnipeg Centre MP Leah Gazan on his Winnipeg stop.

Gazan told reporters the 25 federal NDP MPs would vote unanimously for the bill, which they did, and asked Liberals to get behind it. In the end, the bill was defeated 248 to 71, with Conservatives joining most Liberal MPs to vote it down. Fourteen of 159 Liberal MPs voted for the bill.

"I think Liberal MPs that support public health will support the bill. This should not be about politics, this is a human rights matter," said Gazan.

The continued criminalizing of simple drug possession resulted in 5,900 people charged last year in Ontario alone, Johns said.

"That's a huge impact on people's lives—their ability for employment, for housing, for travel, for child custody, the stigma attached to it is enormous."

Gazan and Johns met with representatives from 17 front line social service organizations in Winnipeg and visited Resource Assistance for Youth (RaY) and Nine Circles Community Health Centre. The people they spoke to expressed support for the bill and frustration over the human toll of an opioid crisis, Johns said.

"They're suffering from the amount of loss of life. This is painful for the families, for the people on the front lines (and) the first responders, and the federal government needs to show some leadership," he said.

The Liberal government has failed to act as the "health emergency" of drug toxicity takes the lives of Canadians, he said.

"We've seen six years of inaction and 27,000 people dead."

Johns cited the 2021 Health Canada Expert Task Force on Substance Use report that recommended the federal government end criminal penalties and automatically expunge prior criminal records for simple drug possession.

"(No) politician should vote against getting (Bill C-216) to committee when this bill just reflects Health Canada's own expert task force on substance use," said Johns.

In Budget 2022, the Liberal government proposed to provide $100 million over three years, starting in 2022-23, to support substance use harm reduction, treatment, and prevention. Johns says the money is insufficient and there's no strategy.

Kate Armstrong, communications coordinator at RaY, told The Leaf a criminal record stemming from drug possession contributes to stigma and prevents people from moving forward in life, while decriminalizing drug possession would lead to more people entering recovery.

"We see people on the streets who are either avoiding getting help or they can't access help that they need or they want because of the way they're treated," Armstrong said.

Before the vote Johns said that, in private, Liberal MPs told him their caucus is divided.

"There's Liberal MPs here in Winnipeg, there's four of them, and I can't see how they can vote against getting this bill to committee."

The Leaf reached out to all four Manitoba Liberal MPs asking for an interview without success. The MPs—Dan Vandal, Jim Carr, Terry Duguid and Kevin Lamoureux—all voted against Bill C-216.

On May 31, the federal government announced the decriminalization of small-scale drug possession in British Columbia will begin on Jan. 31, 2023. The policy change allows possession of up to 2.5 cumulative grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA and will be in effect for three years. The province had requested a 4.5-gram exemption.

Sean Ledwich, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Leaf

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