Politics

Ex-health minister Philpott says federal government should back drug decriminalization in Vancouver

Former federal health minister Jane Philpott is urging the federal government to “be bold” and approve Vancouver’s pitch to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs to help stem a growing tide of overdose deaths.

Former federal health minister says it could be a dry run for wider decriminalization

Alex Delongchamp and Gurman Tatla take part in a mass group naloxone training seminar during International Overdose Awareness Day at Centennial Square in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday August 31, 2019. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Former federal health minister Jane Philpott is urging the federal government to "be bold" and approve Vancouver's pitch to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs to help stem a growing tide of overdose deaths.

She said the plan, which would require the federal cabinet's approval, is "a very good idea" that could save lives — although she worries about federal reluctance due to public anxieties about decriminalization.

"It's certainly the direction I think we should be taking and kudos on Vancouver for having some courageous steps in that direction," she told CBC News.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced the proposal on Wednesday. He'll first need to get it approved by city council and then write to federal officials asking them to grant Vancouver an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act allowing drug possession within city limits.

Stewart's plan has the support of local police and health officials. The mayor said that while very few people are being arrested in the city for simple possession right now, the prospect of arrest — or of seeing one's drugs confiscated — discourages users from getting help in the health system.

Vancouver has seen its number of overdose deaths rise dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic; the city has reported 328 overdose deaths since the beginning of the year. The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has taken the lives of 320 people in the entire province of British Columbia over the same time period.

"The reality is that people are dying because of our criminal approach to substance dependence," said Philpott, now dean of health sciences at Queen's University.

"We have seen opioid overdose deaths skyrocketing across the country. The approach we've taken until now is not working and real people's lives are on the line."

Philpott first publicly declared her support for legalizing small-scale possession for personal use in December 2019, in an article she wrote for Maclean's magazine. She had left federal politics by that time.

Jane Philpott says Vancouver's bid to get a federal exemption to decriminalize small-scale possession might be challenging. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Vancouver's proposal is a great opportunity for the country to test-drive the idea of decriminalization, Philpott said — but getting a federal exemption might not be easy.

Many Canadians are still frightened by the idea of drug decriminalization, she said, adding it's something she's familiar with from her own time as federal health minister.

Even during the public conversations about legalizing recreational cannabis use, she said, many argued that legalization amounted to endorsing or encouraging its use.

Still, she said she believes more and more people are disturbed by the soaring rates of overdose deaths and are looking for solutions.

"I do think we're in a period of time where it would be a good measure for the government to be bold and hopefully support a change like this," she said.

No commitment from Ottawa

In response to Vancouver's announcement, Health Minister Patty Hajdu released a statement saying she has been working with the mayor and the B.C. government to address the overdose crisis.

She gave no clear indication of whether the bid for decriminalization will be approved.

"We will review this request to address criminal penalties for simple possession of small amounts of controlled substances, and will continue our work to get Canadians who use substances the support they need," Hajdu said in the statement.

In the past, federal officials — including Hajdu and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — have insisted decriminalization is not the "silver bullet" that will solve the opioid crisis. They've said the emphasis ought to be on other measures — such as improved access to supplies of safe opioids, rather than the tainted and highly toxic street drugs believed to be driving the surge in overdose deaths.

Time has come for 3-digit suicide hotline, says Philpott

The former health minister also wants to see her colleagues embrace another idea that could save lives.

Conservative MP Todd Doherty is calling on Canada to create a national 988 suicide prevention hotline that would consolidate existing suicide prevention services. 

The idea is also being championed by some mental health experts, who say that a simple, easy-to-remember number could save lives.

The United States is midway through a four-year process of setting up a national 988 service. It's expected to cost $570 million US in the first year. Almost half that money is a one-time expense to replace switches in the phone network.

A 988 hotline in Canada would be "extremely helpful," she said — particularly when so many Canadians are under heavy stress due to the pandemic.

"I think it's an effort that would be a great national project for us to all get behind," she said. "To let people know that when they're struggling to decide whether life is worth living ... Canadians are prepared to try to find those resources and make them as easily available as possible."

She noted that while there could be technological challenges in setting up the service and bringing together service providers across the country, none of them are insurmountable.

In the House of Commons on Monday, Doherty asked the federal health minister whether she would try to ensure his 988 motion received unanimous support to pass right away.

Hajdu didn't give a clear answer but did say that she would work with Doherty to ensure people who are considering suicide get immediate care.

Philpott said she believes that while it may take time, the 988 hotline is an idea all Parliamentarians can get behind.

"My message is, work together. Don't worry about who gets the credit for this. This is all about helping one another in their time of need."


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text) | crisisservicescanada.ca (Chat)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre


If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs: 

Suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, a sense of purposelessness, anxiety, feeling trapped, hopelessness and helplessness, withdrawal, anger, recklessness, mood changes.

About the Author

Catherine Cullen

Parliamentary Bureau

Catherine Cullen is a senior reporter covering politics and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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