Politics

Liberals say they're open to speaking with provinces, cities about expanding drug decriminalization

The federal government says it's open to further decriminalization of small-scale possession of hard drugs in jurisdictions across the country, while the Conservatives say they support what they call a health-based approach to drug addiction.

Conservatives say drug laws should target traffickers, addictions should be met with treatment

Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health Carolyn Bennett, back left, listens as B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks during a news conference after British Columbia was granted an exemption to decriminalize possession of some illegal drugs for personal use on Tuesday, May 31, 2022. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The federal government says it's open to further decriminalization of small-scale possession of hard drugs in jurisdictions across the country, while the Conservatives say they support what they call a health-based approach to drug addiction.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said Wednesday that while it's the government's goal to expand decriminalization, it must be done in concert with local governments and reflect reality in each part of the country.

Bennett made the remarks a day after announcing that, beginning next year, Canadians in B.C. aged 18 and older will be able to possess small amounts of hard drugs under a special legal exemption.

"The four drugs that are in the plan in B.C. may not be the four drugs that another part of Canada would want in their application, so there are different local realities," Bennett said.

WATCH Will the government consider decriminalizing small-scale drug possession nationally?

Will the government consider decriminalizing small-scale drug possession nationally?

6 months ago
Duration 8:34
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett joins Power & Politics to discuss the government's decision to grant a legal exemption to B.C. to decriminalize possession of small amounts of some illicit drugs.

This first-of-its-kind exemption will allow people in B.C. to possess up to a combined 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA. It goes into effect on Jan. 31, 2023, and lasts until Jan. 31, 2026, unless it is revoked or replaced before then.

The exemption means there will be no arrests, charges or seizures for personal possession at or below the 2.5 gram threshold.

Vancouver and Toronto Public Health have separately filed similar exemption requests.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday that rolling out decriminalization in B.C. alone leaves most Canadians with addictions facing criminal prosecution, instead of the health-based approach to drug addiction offered in B.C. 

"It's shameful, frankly, to not take a national approach to a national crisis," Singh said. "The prime minister has to show leadership here. We can save lives today."

Singh called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to support NDP MP Gord Johns' private member's bill, which would expand decriminalization across the country. That bill went down to defeat on Wednesday.

We must work with provinces: Trudeau

When Singh put his question about Johns' bill to Trudeau during question period in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the prime minister said he supports the spirit of the legislation but not its approach.

"Taking a health-care approach across the country, which is exactly the approach one needs to take, one needs to work with the people who actually direct the health care in every different province," Trudeau said.

"That means working with provinces. That means working with municipalities. That means working with front-line workers and that's exactly what we've done in moving forward with B.C., responsibly, to make sure there's a framework around it."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his government's piecemeal approach to drug decriminalization in the House of Commons on June 1, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Earlier in the day, Singh said that Johns' bill would introduce a national strategy to ensure a safe supply of drugs and would allow for the expungement of criminal records associated with addictions that create stigma and make it hard for drug users to reclaim their lives.

The HIV Legal Network said it also welcomed the changes in B.C., but felt the federal government should have done more.

"It is disappointing that decriminalization under the model announced on May 31 will not protect all people who use drugs from the harms of criminalization," the group said in a statement.

"We support progress, but we dream bigger. We want full decriminalization for all."

In B.C., we have de facto decriminalization: Tory MP

While he didn't endorse the decriminalization program in B.C., Conservative MP Michael Barrett, the party's health critic, said the government's focus should be on replacing criminal sanctions for users with a health-based approach, while still targeting traffickers.

"Canadians struggling with addiction deserve compassion, with access to treatment and a path to recovery, and we believe the federal government should be prioritizing that care by expanding treatment and recovery programs so they can get help," Barrett said. "Our country's drug laws must target individuals trafficking and selling illegal drugs."

Conservative MP Brad Vis, who represents the B.C. riding of Mission–Matsqui–Fraser Canyon, said while he supports a health-care approach, the move to decriminalize small-scale possession in B.C. is little more than a symbolic act.

"Already in British Columbia we have de facto decriminalization," he said. "So what in addition is decriminalization doing, other than being symbolic when it's already the de facto process of our law enforcement and the Crown counsel, which lays charges in British Columbia?"

Vis said he supports moving away from criminalization toward a health-based approach to addiction, but only if that change comes with the "requisite treatment and policy to get people the mental health and the physical health that they need."

Bennett said B.C.'s exemption bid was successful because the proposal discussed how the provinces would ramp up social services to manage people with addictions diverted from the criminal justice system.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Zimonjic

Senior writer

Peter Zimonjic is a senior writer for CBC News. He has worked as a reporter and columnist in London, England, for the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and in Canada for Sun Media and the Ottawa Citizen. He is the author of Into The Darkness: An Account of 7/7, published by Random House.

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