Parliamentary health committee recommends decriminalization of illicit substances

The Globe and Mail

13 Jun 2019

Parliamentary committee says permitting possession of small amounts of the illicit drug will help with harm reduction

A parliamentary health committee that toured Canada to study the impact of methamphetamine use is recommending the government decriminalize simple possession of illicit substances and establish a pilot project to provide a safer supply of the drug.

The all-party committee conducted a total of 15 site visits and informal meetings in Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver over a week in early April. They met with government officials, health-care providers, public-health workers, law enforcement and people in overdose-prevention sites and recovery homes.

“Stakeholders explained to the committee that methamphetamine use poses a unique set of challenges because of its low cost, long-lasting effects, high addiction potential and the psychic instability it can cause some users, both in the long and short term,” the report stated.

The committee presented its report, with 23 recommendations, to the House this week.

Among the recommendations is that the federal government “work with provinces, territories, municipalities and Indigenous communities and law enforcement agencies to decriminalize the simple possession of small quantities of illicit substances.”

The report cited Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, who said such a policy change would help remove the stigma associated with drug use that often keeps people from seeking help, and Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, who noted related offences such as property crime and trafficking would remain illegal.

“Chief Steve Barlow [of the] Calgary Police Service further explained that arresting individuals with substance-use problems has not been successful in preventing these individuals from committing crime, as individuals are often released back into the community without treatment, creating a cycle of recidivism among users,” the report stated.

It also recommended the federal government, through the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada, “establish a harm reduction pilot project initiative focusing on approaches towards providing an uncontaminated supply of pharmaceutical grade methamphetamines, drawing on similar approaches currently available for opiate users.”

On this, the report cited Sarah Blyth, executive director of Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society, who said meth purchased on the street is often contaminated with substances such as laundry detergent and pig de-wormer, as well as illicit fentanyl. Karen Turner, a board member with Alberta Addicts Who Educate and Advocate Responsibly, said a pharmaceutical version could be prescribed through Health Canada’s Special Access Programme.

Other recommendations include public awareness and anti-stigma campaigns; funding healthy, recreational community events for impoverished neighbourhoods; and “substantially” increasing funding for withdrawal management and residential treatment services.

The Liberal government has repeatedly stated that it would not consider decriminalization despite calls from top health officials in Canada and abroad. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has been outspoken in his support of the policy change, attributed his party’s hesitation to “simply politics.”

“There is a worry that people will confuse it with broader legalization, and confuse it with our efforts toward cannabis regulation,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

“We have an opioid crisis, and a methamphetamine crisis, and Canadians are dying all across the country. When you have an overwhelming number of health experts calling for the very same solution, we should listen.” While methamphetamine use is low among Canadians, there is evidence to suggest it is increasing. In Manitoba, monthly emergency room visits for methamphetamine use increased by 1,700 per cent between 2013 and 2017, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

Mr. Erskine-Smith plans to introduce a private member’s bill as early as Thursday to remove criminal penalties for simple possession.

“When confronted with a problem where the Canadian public may not yet be supportive enough of the policy, I think where the evidence is so clear, and the crisis is so severe, it’s up to us to be leaders and be educators,” he said.

Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway, health critic and vice-chair of the committee, said the parliamentary health committee heard calls for decriminalization at every stop and that not acting was “political cowardice.”

“They are not listening to the very vast majority of stakeholders, experts and health-care professionals who work in addiction,” he said.

The Liberal government has repeatedly stated that it would not consider decriminalization despite calls from top health officials in Canada and abroad.

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-parliamentary-health-committee-recommends-decriminalization-of-simple/

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