S-232: Health-Centred Approach to Substance Use Act
Honourable senators, I’m pleased to lend my voice in support of Bill S-232. I want to start by reminding honourable colleagues about a public health emergency that has been with us for seven years and which shows no sign of abating. I am referring to the public health emergency on toxic drugs declared by British Columbia in 2016, a year in which there were 19,275 overdose or poisoning calls in my province.
Sadly, the declaration of a public health emergency was prescient. The number of overdose/poisoning calls went up to 23,441 in 2017, to 23,662 in 2018, to 24,166 in 2019 and, just to skip a few years, to 33,654 in 2022. There was a 5% drop in overdose/poisoning calls between 2021 and 2022, but I think you will agree that having over 30,000 such incidents in a year is shocking and unacceptable.
At the start of this year, Health Canada granted an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to the Province of B.C. from January 31, 2023, to January 31, 2026, for adults in the province to not be subject to criminal charges for the personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs. According to the British Columbian government, decriminalization is not associated with increased rates of substance use. It is, however, expected to help reduce the barriers and stigma that prevent people from accessing life-saving supports and services.
The Minister of Mental Health and Addictions in B.C. has said that there is no evidence suggesting decriminalization of possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs for adults 18 or older has led to an increase of the consumption of illicit drugs in public spaces.
As I mentioned earlier, this exemption came into effect at the end of January this year and will last for three years. It is this example from my province of British Columbia that persuades me to support Senator Boniface’s bill on a framework for decriminalization of certain illegal substances. But I would stress that the decriminalization of such substances cannot be undertaken in isolation. It has to be accompanied by support structures as well as a safe supply of drugs so that those who use them are not left hanging.
Much has been said about how severe this crisis is, not only in my home province of British Columbia and in the major cities of this country — particularly Vancouver and Toronto — but, as Senator Boniface has reminded us, also in small towns across the country and, indeed, all regions of Canada. I would just underscore that substance use disorder is a public health issue. It is not a criminal justice issue.
The Expert Task Force on Substance Use has unanimously recommended an end to criminal sanctions related to simple possession of controlled substances. We should build on this expert recommendation to encourage the government to further develop this framework. There is evidence — as was found in British Columbia — that decriminalization for simple possession is an effective way to reduce the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use.
There is, however, a need for alternatives to criminal sanctions, which require integrated partnerships and access to diversion measures. Diversion approaches:
. . . provide opportunities to make positive community impacts, including reducing recidivism, reducing ancillary crimes and improving health and safety outcomes for individuals who use illegal substances . . .
What I’ve just recited is the preamble to Senator Boniface’s bill, and I agree wholeheartedly with all of these propositions.
We’ve had this bill on our Order Paper since 2021. There have been four or five speakers already. It is high time that we send this to committee for detailed study.
Colleagues, there is a public health emergency in our country right now. It is not going away and will not be wished away. We need to take concrete actions that allow us to come up with new approaches to addressing this diabolical problem.
With that, Your Honour, I conclude my short speech and encourage us all to consider sending this to committee as soon as possible. Thank you.