02/22/2016 07:14 EST | Updated 02/22/2017 05:12 EST

Liberal MP's Bill Proposes 'Good Samaritan' Immunity During Overdoses

Fear of prosecution continues to be a barrier in calling for help even as the number of drug overdose deaths is rising across the country, said the director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

Ron McKinnon/Facebook

A Liberal MP is set to introduce legislation that aims to lift the fear of reporting a drug overdose by providing those who call 911 during an overdose amnesty from being charged with drug possession.

Ron McKinnon, who represents the B.C. riding of Coquitlam–Port Coquitlam, is expected to table the "Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act" in the House of Commons Monday morning.

"Seconds matter. It's the difference between life and death."

Fear of prosecution continues to be a barrier in calling for help even as the number of drug overdose deaths is rising across the country, said Donald MacPherson, the director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

"We really are in a dire situation," MacPherson said. "Given the number of overdoses occurring in Canada at this time, we need every tool in the toolbox and this is one of those tools that we could use." 

The proposed legislation comes nearly two years after the House Standing Committee on Health recommended considering an overdose immunity law in a 2014 report. The idea has also been endorsed by the Canadian Medical Association.

A study from Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council found that just 46 per cent of respondents would call 911 during an overdose situation, citing potential of criminal charges as the primary barrier. 

That hesitation costs lives, said Michael Parkinson of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council.

"Seconds matter. It's the difference between life and death. It's the difference between being an employable and participating member of society, or spending much of the rest of your life in a vegetative state," Parkinson said.

'Change in philosophy'

​More than 30 American states have enacted similar overdose immunity laws with bipartisan support, but it would be a first in Canada, if passed. The proposed legislation only provides an exemption to drug possession charges, not drug trafficking or impaired driving charges.

McKinnon called on all parliamentarians to support his bill.

"Canadians need to take care of each other — especially the vulnerable amongst us. This bill means a scared young person is less likely to look the other way," McKinnon said in a news release.

MacPherson said the new Liberal government shows a "change in philosophy" surrounding addiction and public heath after a decade under a Conservative government that fought against harm reduction initiatives, such as safe injection sites.

In January, the Liberal government granted an exemption to the Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver under section 56.1 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, making it the second legal supervised injection site in the city and the country.

The centre had been offering the service since 2002 without the exemption, as police agreed to let it operate despite being considered illegal under federal drug laws.

"I think this government understands what supervised injection sites and those kinds of programs can offer," MacPherson said.

'Pressure on all governments'

Each province tracks deaths differently, making national data on drug overdose deaths difficult to come by. 

​"It simply hasn't been a priority to date. Otherwise, we'd be counting the dead bodies that have been piling up from coast to coast to coast," Parkinson said.

In Ontario, the coroner's office said there were 789 deaths due to "acute drug toxicity" and another 194 due to "acute drug toxicity and alcohol toxicity" in 2014, based on preliminary figures.

The B.C. Coroners' Service recorded 465 "apparent illicit drug overdose deaths" in 2015 that were considered accidental or undetermined, which represented a 27 per cent increase from the 366 in 2014.

"It's definitely getting worse. B.C. hit the highest numbers in 2015 that we've seen since 1993, which was an overdose epidemic and was declared an emergency," MacPherson said.

"We have a new government but we also have a deteriorating situation around overdoses, so there's a lot of pressure on all governments at the moment to come up with some new actions, some new activity, some new interventions."

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