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441-00119 (Health)

Paper petition

Original language of petition: English

PETITION TO THE HOUSE OF COMMONS IN PARLIAMENT ASSEMBLED

Petition to Address the Opioid Crisis

We, the undersigned residents of Canada, draw the attention of the House of Commons in Parliament Assembled to the following:

Whereas:

Oover 4000 Canadians died in 2017 and over 2,800 in 2016 due to preventable opioid overdose resulting from fentanyl-poisoned sources;

The number of preventable deaths has surpassed the total number of deaths of all other Public Health Emergencies in the last 20 years including SARS, H1N1, and Ebola;

Those who have died as a result of a preventable opioid overdose from fentanyl-poisoned sources were valued citizens of this country: our children, siblings, spouses, parents, family members, clients, friends;

Substance use is a normal part of human experience, documented across centuries and all over the world;

The current war on drugs has been costly and grossly ineffective and resulted in widespread stigma towards addiction and against those who use illicit drugs;

Criminalization of particular substances has resulted in the establishment of a drug trade that now traffics dangerous and lethal products, such as fentanyl;

Regulating to ensure safe sources, with proper measures and bylaws, will reduce the criminal element associated with street drugs;

Problematic substance use is a health issue and is not resolved through criminalizing personal possession and consumption; and

Decriminalization of personal possession is associated with dramatically reducing overdose deaths in the countries that have modernized their drug policy.

Therefore we, the undersigned, Citizens of Canada, call upon the Government of Canada to:

  • 1. Declare the current opioid overdose and fentanyl poisoning crisis a National Public Health Emergency under the Emergencies Act in order to manage and resource it with the aim to reduce and eliminate preventable deaths;
  • 2. Reform current drug policy to decriminalize personal possession; and
  • 3. Create with urgency and immediacy a system to provide safe unadulterated access to substances so that people who use substances, experimentally, recreationally or chronically, are not at imminent risk of overdose due to a contaminated source.

Response by the Minister of Health

Signed by (Minister or Parliamentary Secretary): Élisabeth Brière

The Government of Canada recognizes that the overdose crisis is one of the most serious and unprecedented public health threats in Canada’s recent history, which is having devastating impacts on individuals, friends and families, and communities across the country. Tragically, most recent national data indicates that 24,626 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred between January 2016 and June 2021. Fentanyl and its analogues continue to be major drivers of the crisis with as many as 87% of accidental apparent opioid toxicity deaths so far in 2021 (January to June) involving fentanyl.

The Government of Canada also recognizes that the complexity of this crisis has only increased due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a more uncertain and dangerous illegal toxic drug supply, resulting in tragic increases in overdose-related deaths across the country, as well as reduced access to health and social services, including life-saving harm reduction and treatment. Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada have been working with provinces, territories, municipalities and other partners, including researchers, advocates and people with lived and living experience, to ensure that people who use drugs can continue to access the treatment, harm reduction and other services they need during the pandemic.

With respect to the request to declare the overdose crisis a national public health emergency, the federal Emergencies Act is a tool of last resort to ensure safety and security in the event of a national emergency that cannot be addressed by other levels of government or other laws. Such a declaration is not required at the federal level to access important tools to respond to the overdose crisis. In addition, the Government believes that the crisis requires a longer-term, sustained, and co-ordinated effort, which the Emergencies Act is not designed to provide.

The Government of Canada’s approach to substance use issues aims to be comprehensive, collaborative, and compassionate, guided by our federal drug strategy – the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy (CDSS). The CDSS takes a public health-focused approach, and lays out our framework for evidence-based actions to reduce the harms associated with substance use in Canada. It includes four key pillars – prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and enforcement. In the context of the worsening overdose crisis, and taking steps to reduce harms and deaths related to substance use, the Government is placing particular focus on:

  • ensuring that harm reduction measures are available to Canadians who need them;
  • working with stakeholders to reduce stigma directed at people who use drugs, which acts as a barrier to accessing critical health and social services and often leads to social isolation and further risk of harms;
  • continuing to work with provinces and territories to improve access to evidence-based treatment options;
  • continuing to address illegal production and trafficking, with a focus on organized drug crime; and,
  • implementing additional surveillance and research activities that will further build the evidence base and allow us to pursue innovative solutions to this public health crisis.

Since 2016, the Government of Canada has taken urgent action to address the overdose crisis through significant investments of over $700 million. Recent examples of key federal investments in this area include:

  • over $182 million through the 2020 Fall Economic Statement and Budget 2021 in support of community-based organizations responding to substance use issues, including investments to help them provide direct care services in a COVID-19 context and to scale-up key lifesaving measures and increase access to a safer drug supply as an alternative to the contaminated supply;
  • $150 million through the one-time Emergency Treatment Fund to provinces and territories, which, when cost-matched, resulted in an investment over $300 million to improve access to evidence-based treatment services;
  • $200 million, with $40 million per year ongoing, to enhance the delivery of culturally appropriate addictions treatment and prevention services in First Nations communities; and,
  • $13 million over five years to launch a new national, multi-year public education campaign to help reshape Canadians’ attitudes and perceptions about people who use drugs.

The Government of Canada is continuing to work with provincial, territorial, municipal, and Indigenous partners on options to address their regional needs. We have established federal, provincial, and territorial governance tables, including the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses and the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Committee on Problematic Substance Use & Harms to facilitate ongoing collaboration and consultation with provincial and territorial partners. We are also collaborating with provinces and territories to better understand the evolving crisis, and undertaking timely monitoring and reporting of opioid-related deaths and harms in Canada. Public health officers from the Public Health Agency of Canada have been deployed to support public health surveillance systems in provinces and territories.

In addition, engagement with civil society organizations, direct care service providers, academics, people with lived and living experience, and other key stakeholders continues to inform federal actions to reduce opioid-related overdoses and deaths and improve the health and wellbeing of Canadians who use drugs. For example, we continue to engage with stakeholders to provide them with information about safer supply and encourage them to look and work within their sphere of influence to remove barriers to this practice. Safer supply services provide a pharmaceutical alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply as a way to help prevent overdoses, improve the health of people who use drugs, and help connect people to other health and social services. Health Canada is supporting a number of safer supply projects through the Substance Use and Additions Program (SUAP). We have also taken action to increase access to safer supply services by:

  • helping to build the evidence base for safer supply by supporting the evaluation of pilot projects and seeking expert advice, including from health professionals and people who use drugs; 
  • making it easier to access needed medications, including issuing exemptions from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act; and,
  • sharing resources and guidance on treating substance use disorder for healthcare practitioners.

The Government of Canada has taken actions to reduce barriers to providing people who use drugs with a safer, pharmaceutical alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply. On August 24, 2020, the Minister of Health sent a letter to Provincial and Territorial Ministers of Health and regulatory colleges to encourage the provision of a full spectrum of care options to people who use drugs, including access to a safer supply. In addition, Health Canada has issued class exemptions to ease restrictions on the transportation of controlled substances and reduced barriers for pharmacists to make it easier for people to access the medications they need during the COVID-19 pandemic while following public health advice, such as physical distancing. Through Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program, the Government of Canada is supporting 17 safer supply projects across 29 sites in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick and one national community of practice, for a total investment of over $60 million. Seventeen of these projects are providing medications to people with substance use disorders as an alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply, and one is a National Community of Practice that focuses on the sharing of best practices and knowledge dissemination between providers of safer supply.

The Government of Canada has also taken a number of steps to provide options for those seeking treatment for severe substance use disorder. On April 25, 2019, the Minister of Health added diacetylmorphine to the List of Drugs for an Urgent Public Health Need and on February 16, 2022, diacetylmorphine hydrochloride was formally approved by Health Canada as a supervised injectable opioid agonist therapy for adult patients with severe opioid use disorder. Amendments to federal regulations have also allowed health care practitioners to provide diacetylmorphine-assisted treatment outside of a hospital setting, if permitted by their province or territory. In addition, on May 1, 2019, Health Canada approved the use of injectable hydromorphone by qualified health care professionals as a treatment for adults with severe opioid use disorder. It has already been approved as a treatment option for severe opioid use disorder in a number of countries, including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Canada is also providing guidance and leadership on the prescribing, dispensing, and delivery of opioids and other narcotics during the pandemic. For instance, through funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse developed a series of national guidance documents related to substance use in the context of COVID-19. Health Canada has also assembled a toolkit to provide clarity on prescribing for the treatment of substance use disorder and/or to provide a safer supply. Furthermore, the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health published a rapid review of clinical and cost-effectiveness of injectable opioid agonist treatment for patients with opioid dependence.

The federal government recognizes that problematic substance use is, first and foremost, a public health issue not a criminal one. The Government of Canada has worked to implement a number of measures to divert people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and towards trusted and supportive relationships. For example, the government passed the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in May 2017, which provides some legal protection for people who experience or witness an overdose and call 911 or their local emergency number for help.. On August 18, 2020, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada issued guidance to prosecutors, directing that alternatives to prosecution should be considered for personal possession offences, except when there are serious aggravating circumstances. In addition, Health Canada is currently funding a three-year project in Peterborough, Ontario, to develop a multi-sector response to direct people who use drugs away from the justice system and into care. In March 2021, the Minister of Health commissioned an Expert Task Force on Substance Use, whose reports provide important advice with regards to alternatives to criminal penalties for simple possession of controlled substances and federal drug policy. Further to the Government’s commitment to reintroduce former Bill C-22 in the first 100 days of their mandate, on December 7, 2021, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada introduced Bill C-5, which proposes amendments to the Criminal Code and to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Among other measures, this Bill would repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug related-offences, and would require prosecutors to consider alternative measures to laying charges or prosecuting individuals for simple possession of drugs, including diversion to treatment programs, giving a warning, or taking no further action.

We are currently working with jurisdictions who have submitted a s. 56 exemption request for the decriminalization of illicit drugs for personal possession. We have received the Section 56 exemption requests from BC, Vancouver and Toronto Public Health and we are reviewing them on an urgent basis. Each request is reviewed on a case by case basis. The federal government knows other jurisdictions are also looking at other health-based approaches and we are working with our partners to find innovative solutions grounded on evidence. “Canada will continue to work with provincial, territorial, municipal, and Indigenous partners on options to address their regional needs and help people who use drugs to get the support they need.

The Government of Canada aims to take a comprehensive, collaborative, and compassionate public health focused approach to addressing substance use. We have been working with civil society organizations, front line responders, academics, people with lived and living experience, and other key stakeholders to reduce overdoses and deaths and improve the health and wellbeing of Canadians who use drugs. The federal government believes that substance use is a health issue, and is committed to examining all options and evidence to respond to the tragic increase in overdoses and to help save lives, while also ensuring the safety of communities across the country.

Presented to the House of Commons
Gord Johns (Courtenay—Alberni)
February 1, 2022 (Petition No. 441-00119)
Government response tabled
March 21, 2022
Photo - Gord Johns
Courtenay—Alberni
New Democratic Party Caucus
British Columbia

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