OTTAWA — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to consider decriminalizing all illegal drugs in an effort to combat Canada's escalating opioid crisis.
Singh, who campaigned on the promise during his party's recent leadership race, said he will push the federal New Democrats to make the position part of its own formal policy platform.
The NDP is scheduled to hold a policy convention in Ottawa in February.
"We have the evidence," Singh said in an interview this week. "Why do we continue down a path that makes no sense?"
Singh, a former criminal defence lawyer, has been vocal about the opioid issue ever since becoming the party's new leader, including during a trip last week to British Columbia, when he paid a visit to an overdose prevention site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
In his legal practice, Singh said he witnessed first-hand how the current criminal approach is failing.
"We are prosecuting people and incarcerating people that don't need to be incarcerated," he said. "These are folks that need to be helped and supported."
The majority of Canadians struggling with opioid addiction are also battling problems like mental health challenges and poverty, Singh said, noting that he would exclude drug trafficking from any decriminalization efforts.
On Saturday, Singh told about 2,000 delegates at the B.C. NDP convention that Canada's drug laws need to change to recognize drug addiction is a social justice issue, not a criminal justice problem.
We have the evidence. Why do we continue down a path that makes no sense?Jagmeet SIngh
His comments come as Canadian health-care experts, including B.C.'s provincial health officer, urge the federal government to strongly consider borrowing from Portugal's approach to drug policy, including decriminalizing personal possession of illicit drugs.
Earlier this year, B.C.'s chief medical officer Perry Kendall said precious time and resources are being spent chasing people around the court system — exertions that do nothing to curb the drug supply or prevent drug deaths.
"I think it is incumbent upon us, if we are really serious about trying to deal with this epidemic which is actually killing people, then we need to look at these alternative, regulatory frameworks to see if they might work for us," Kendall said.
It is up to Ottawa to shift its approach, because the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is a federal law, he added. Portugal did not decriminalize all drugs in all circumstances, but rather removed the application of criminal law on personal possession for limited amounts while offering education and social supports, he said.
'There's so much stigma'
Leila Attar, a 20-year-old advocate who suffered an overdose last November after taking Percocet pills laced with fentanyl, said Tuesday she is pleased leaders like Singh are speaking about decriminalization, even if it's not a "popular opinion."
"There's so much stigma," said Attar, who is channelling her own experiences into helping others at a pop-up injection site in Ottawa.
If Trudeau fails to consider decriminalization, he is turning away from an approach that could save lives, she added.
"It is frustrating," Attar said. "We know there are so many people that are experts ... pushing for the same thing."
Singh, who visited the Ottawa pop-up site in September during his leadership bid, said while social workers and advocates are trying to step up, the government has done nothing so far to stem the tide of tragedy.
"The reason it is happening is because people are dying," Singh said. "It is across this country and what people are doing is they are absolutely filling a void."
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