Parliament Video: Jenny in the House: What Portugal is doing on the Opioid Crisis

While speaking to the motion to create Portuguese Heritage Month, I wanted to take some time to discuss the great things going on in Portugal in regards to harm reduction. Canada can and should learn from Portuguese model. Over 15 years ago, Portugal made a decision that things needed to change with the realization the current approach simply was not working. Portugal embraced the harm reduction approach, understanding that addiction issues were better suited to be addressed by the health care system and social welfare system than the criminal justice system. Portugal took what seemed like a radical step to many peer nations: decriminalizing minor possession of all drugs and dramatically shifting their resources away from the criminal justice system towards health and social services:

Jenny Kwan (NDP) Vancouver East, BC

"Madam Speaker, as the NDP critic for multiculturalism, I am pleased to rise in this House to support Motion No. 126, Portuguese heritage month.

I have always been proud of the NDP's support of multiculturalism in Canada. My colleagues and I always welcome the opportunity to celebrate the unique heritage of Canada and the contributions made by so many different ethnic and religious groups.

Portuguese Canadians have a rich cultural history and heritage, with many traditions brought over continuing to flourish in the various Little Portugals in Canadian cities today. With nearly half a million Canadians having Portuguese heritage, the tie created between Canada and Portugal is significant.

This motion provides Canadians with the opportunity to understand, appreciate, and join in the celebration of the traditions and heritage of the Portuguese community. I believe this also gives us an opportunity to look at what Portugal is doing today that Canada can learn from.

During the 1990s, Portugal was experiencing a national crisis regarding heroin addiction. At its height, one in 100 Portuguese citizens was using heroin, overdose deaths were robbing families of their loved ones far too soon, and dirty needles were contributing to the highest level of HIV infection in Europe.

A little over 15 years ago, with the realization that the current approach simply was not working, Portugal made a decision that things needed to change. Portugal embraced the harm reduction approach, understanding that addiction issues were better suited to being addressed by the health care system and the social welfare system, rather than the criminal justice system.

Portugal took what seemed like a radical step to many peer nations: it decriminalized minor possession of all drugs and dramatically shifted resources away from the criminal justice system towards health and social services. Now if people are caught possessing what is deemed an amount equivalent to individual possession, they are sent to report to a warning commission on drug addiction. Here they are assessed by social workers and other health care professionals and are referred to treatment centres, if appropriate. Instead of criminal charges tying up the courts, and criminal records with lifelong impacts, individuals are referred to services that will actually help them and are given fines equal to parking tickets.

Those against these ideas suggested that it would be the end of Portugal, that people from all over the world would flock there simply to use and abuse drugs, and that this would simply make things worse. Nearly two decades later, that fearmongering has been shown to be just that. Drug-caused deaths in Portugal have fallen well below the European Union's average. New HIV infections due to IV drug use have dropped from over 1,000 cases in 2001 to fewer than 100 in 2013. Overall drug use has actually gone down.

As I have said in the House before, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Portuguese model has saved lives, reduced infection rates, and alleviated the burden on the criminal justice system that drug use and addiction causes in countries like our own.

It is clear that as Canada grapples with the current opioid crisis, there is much we can learn from Portugal. The success of harm reduction in east Vancouver, most notably with the establishment of lnsite, is indisputable. However, that is not enough. We need more sites. We need more funding for treatment options, including expanded heroine maintenance programs and services. We need to make more use of the health care system and less use of the justice system. We need to support the front-line workers and first responders. We need to call it what it is: a national health emergency.

In his first visit to the west coast after becoming leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh stated:

Thousands of people are dying in our country as a result of this crisis and it needs to be named a national crisis first.

He also noted that the Portuguese model of harm reduction resulted in a dramatic decrease in overdose deaths and a reduction in addictions. He said:

That should be the focus if we really want to address the opioid crisis, and really want to reduce the significant and terrible deaths.

Canada can and should learn from the Portuguese model.

Aside from the opioid crisis, Portugal is also concerned about climate change. Portugal's geographic location on the Iberian Peninsula has brought the impact of climate change to the forefront. It is believed that this region will be hit hard by climate change impacts. This past summer, Portugal, like Canada, experienced devastating wildfires. It is believed that the impact of climate change has lengthened Portugal's wildfire season from two months a year to up to five months of the year.

The European Environment Agency reported this year that Portugal has lost 6.8 billion euros as a result of climate change from 1980 to 2013 alone. Portugal has committed to the Paris agreement and made ambitious goals to combat climate change.

The climate change performance index, which is an index by Germanwatch and the Climate Action Network Europe, ranked Portugal 11th in the world for 2017 compared to Canada at 55. It was noted that Portugal was one of the only two countries that leapt from “moderate performance” into “good performance”, whereas for Canada they wrote:

Without significant movements in either direction, Canada remains in the bottom group of most CCPI categories. The only sector where the country ranks in the middle field is the emissions development but even there it lost some ground...

In June, the Portuguese prime minister reported that Portugal had already achieved over 87% of its 2020 goal. Unfortunately, our Prime Minister cannot say the same. Despite the government's sunny ways, it has only committed to reach the former Conservative government's climate targets for 2030, targets which were hardly considered world-leading then or now. Unless a dramatic change of course occurs, Canada will not meet its targets for 2020 or 2030.

Finally, coming out of the global financial crisis, many countries, Canada included, adopted an austerity mantra. Social services were cut, and in some cases deeply. Austerity measures have always clearly had the biggest impact on the vulnerable segments of our population, and this true in Canada or anywhere abroad.

In much of Europe, where the crisis hit harder than here, even deeper cuts and austerity demands impacted the lives of countless people already struggling to get by. The Portugal government, elected in 2015, determined that it would not take that approach. Much like the reaction to Portugal's harm reduction measures, many said this would prove to be a disaster.

Portugal's government has moved to increase minimum wages, reverse regressive tax measures, reinvest in the public service through wages and pensions, increased social security for lower-income families, and introduced a luxury charge on homes worth over 600,000 euros. After one year with these changes in effect, GDP was up, corporate investment was up, deficit spending halved to the lowest point in 40 years, and the economy grew for 13 straight quarters and counting.

Portugal is investing in its people to grow its economy, and it appears to be working.

Canada can and needs to do more to invest in our people to grow our economy. Too often we put vulnerable groups against vulnerable groups. Instead of tackling tax havens and loopholes in our tax system used by only the wealthiest people to avoid paying their fair share, the government floated tax measures that would have impacted small business owners, and even measures that would impact minimum wage retail workers.

Portuguese Canadians should be proud not just of their Portuguese heritage and history but also of the present. While celebrating Portugal day in June, Canadians with or without Portuguese heritage should not just learn more about the history but learn more about today. It is through this exchange of dialogue that Canada can continue to push to be as great as we possibly can. This is one of the great aspects of Canada's multiculturalism policy and it is one of the reasons I am proud to support this motion."

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