POLITICS

Why Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Tabled A Drug Decriminalization Bill At The Worst Time

He wants a policy similar to Portugal’s to make it into the Liberals’ election platform.

06/23/2019 10:26 EDT | Updated 06/23/2019 14:11 EDT

OTTAWA — In the final days of the final days of the  House of Commons, a Liberal MP introduced a bill proposing to decriminalize simple possession of small quantities of illicit drugs.

The bill, tabled by Toronto MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, wasn’t destined to pass.

He told the House, the legislation would not remove the criminal sanctions for producing or trafficking illegal drugs. The bill’s focus is on personal use and making systemic changes to reduce barriers to opioid addiction treatment, he said.

“It means treating patients as patients and not as criminals.”

Canadian Press
Federal Liberal backbencher Nathaniel Erskine-Smith looks on during a news conference in Toronto on July 22, 2016. 

Erskine-Smith said he felt it was important to introduce for two reasons: to amplify the overwhelming evidence from health experts ringing the alarm over the opioid crisis; and to send a message to his party and constituents.

“If I’m re-elected, I will introduce this bill,” he told HuffPost Canada.

Erskine-Smith has been a vocal advocate for the decriminalization of illicit drugs to combat the opioid epidemic.

The Beaches—East York MP is outspoken about the subject inside and outside of caucus and has tried to convince the party to fold the policy into its upcoming election platform. “No one has said no,” he said.

Bill C-460, which calls for amendments to the Criminal Code, is expected to die on the order paper — that’s what happens when an election is called, forcing the parliamentary slate to be wiped clean. Hence his promise to re-introduce the bill.

Crisis has affected life expectancy

More than 11,500 people in Canada have died from apparent opioid overdoses between January 2016 and December 2018, according to new government numbers released in June.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of apparent opioid deaths have become significant enough to put a halt to Canada’s growing life expectancy rate for the first time in 40 years.

Opioids are commonly used to alleviate pain. The epidemic of opioid-related deaths stem from the use of fentanyl, an illicit synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Studies have shown people addicted to illicit opioids, such as fentanyl, are less likely to go to health authorities and police for help because of fear of possible criminal charges. It’s a barrier Erskine-Smith wants to tear down.

“We’ve taken a number of steps towards treating drug use as a health issue,” the Toronto Beaches MP said.

The Liberals have introduced a suite of measures to combat the opioid crisis, including an additional $30.5 million in funding in this year’s budget to close gaps in treatment and harm reduction programs. Changes have also been made at the border to limit the import of chemicals used to make fentanyl.

But Erskine-Smith said it’s time to “take the next and potentially more difficult political step” and decriminalize for small possession of illicit drugs.

His proposal isn’t without popular support. At a policy convention in Halifax last year, the Liberal party’s grassroots voted overwhelmingly to decriminalize illicit drugs as a way to address the opioid epidemic as a public health issue. Erskine-Smith even convinced his caucus colleagues to recommend the change to party activists.

But the idea has yet to pass its sea trial to earn the official backing of the federal government.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor has repeatedly acknowledged the severity of the opioid crisis, but maintains the biggest issue to address is supply, not getting rid of criminal sanctions.

Portugal’s model

There is a growing openness to the idea of decriminalizing illicit drugs. The Commons’ health committee tabled a report this month recommending the government examine Portugal’s model of decriminalization. The European country has been lauded for its approach, which sees those caught with a personal supply given a warning, fine or appearance before a commission, rather than being arrested.

The report notes a key to Portugal’s model is its system includes “a scaling up of treatment programs and the creation of diversions programs for offenders who commit crimes related to their substance use disorders.”

It’s a point around which Conservatives have raised concerns.

Conservative MPs on the health committee tabled a dissenting report, urging Parliamentarians to not jump ahead to decriminalization without adequate supports to effectively treat people addicted to opioids.

Those caught in possession of illicit drugs in Portugal, the Tories’ report notes, are brought before a mandatory tribunal with a medical, psychological and legal representatives who are authorized to provide sanctions to those individuals.

Canada does not “have enough available and affordable mental health supports, mandatory education regarding harms, or a correctional system that could mimic Portugal’s,” the Conservatives said. “It would be unrealistic to assume Canada could achieve the same results as Portugal without implementing all the mandatory elements.”

SEBASTIEN ST-JEAN via Getty Images
Andrew Scheer smiles during an event at the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations on May 7, 2019.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has taken a different approach to addressing the opioid crisis, pointing the blame beyond Canada’s borders.

“The main source of illicit fentanyl coming into Canada is from China by containers and through the mail and the majority of it is destined to B.C.,” Scheer said in a speech earlier this month. “This is all the more urgent since sources have clearly indicated that the issue of imported fentanyl from China will get worse before it gets better. So the government must take real action to hold China accountable for this phenomenon.”

Despite the Conservative pushback against decriminalization, Erskine-Smith warned the opioid crisis needs to be treated as a public health concern, not a partisan wedge issue.

“Following the evidence, with respect to drug policy, might make for good policy, but it doesn’t make for good politics,” Erskine-Smith said.

“If this was an alcohol addiction, we would be trying to help them.”

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