Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government will not support a Liberal MP’s bill to decriminalize the possession of drugs for personal use, a proposal that has again sparked false claims from Conservatives.
“We will take a look at the proposals but as we’ve said many times, we believe in harm reduction, we believe in evidence-based policy,” Trudeau told reporters Thursday during a stop at the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough.
“Our approach is to ensure that people get the support they need. We do not believe that decriminalizing hard drugs is a solution right now.”
Trudeau was asked how he would “direct” his caucus to handle the private member’s bill from Toronto MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has long advocated for the decriminalization of drugs as a way to address the opioid epidemic. Private member’s bills are typically considered free votes where MPs aren’t expected to vote in lockstep with the rest of caucus.
Erskine-Smith’s Bill C-235, introduced last week, would eliminate the possession offence from the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act (CDSA), but leave in place offences for production and trafficking. He told the House of Commons the focus is on ending the stigma around drug use to encourage more people to get help.
Watch: Liberal MP says his bill will save lives
“We should treat patients as patients and not as criminals,” he said, noting that decriminalization in other countries has “increased the number of people seeking treatment by 60 per cent” and is backed by health experts, including the Canadian Public Health Association.
“The bill, if passed, will save lives,” he said.
Erskine-Smith also introduced another bill — C-236 — that would amend the CDSA to “require peace officers to consider measures other than judicial proceedings to deal with individuals alleged to have been in possession of certain substances.”
But in a similar attack as one used during the fall federal election campaign, Tories pounced on the bill to claim Trudeau’s government has a “secret plan” to legalize hard drugs.
“Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are looking to legalize hard drugs like heroin, crack cocaine and crystal meth,” Tory MPs John Brassard and Bob Saroya said Tuesday in a joint statement.
“These drugs are extremely dangerous; they tear families and our communities apart and do lasting damage to people who use them. They should remain illegal.”
The release noted that Liberal delegates at the party’s 2018 policy convention overwhelmingly voted to decriminalize illicit drugs to treat the opioid epidemic as a public health issue. The Commons’ health committee also tabled a non-binding report last year recommending the government examine Portugal’s model of decriminalization, where those caught with a personal supply of drugs are not arrested, but instead given a warning, fine, or appearance before a commission.
“Canadians are rightly concerned about Liberal policies that would make it easier to use hard drugs like heroin, crack cocaine and meth,” the Tory MPs said in the release. “These policies will do nothing to help Canadians struggling with addiction on their path to recovery and will exacerbate the opioid crisis tearing apart our communities.”
Erskine-Smith fired back with a statement Tuesday calling out Conservative “misinformation” about his proposal, noting the bill is not supported by the government and would not, if passed, legalize drugs.
The Grit MP spelled out the scale of the opioid crisis in Canada, including more than 13,000 opioid-related deaths since 2016. Statistics Canada has also said life expectancy in Canada has stalled because of the crisis.
“If the Conservative were serious about addressing the opioid crisis, they would stop spreading misinformation and attacking evidence-based recommendations from public health experts,” Erskine-Smith said
On the campaign trail in September, Tory Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters that “decriminalization is something that the Liberals are pursuing and contemplating,” evidently because of Erskine-Smith’s earlier advocacy on the issue.
The party also used Chinese-language advertising that falsely claimed: “Justin Trudeau has a plan to legalize hard drugs!”
When pressed on the matter, a Tory spokesperson referred to a Global News interview where Trudeau said Liberals weren’t “looking at full decriminalization at all right now” — similar language as what the prime minister said Thursday.
With a file from Zi-Ann Lum