Parliament Video: Speech in support of Bill C-216 “End the war on drugs and save lives”

On Monday May 20 2022, I gave a speech in the House urging all Members of Parliament to vote in support of NDP MP Gord John's Private Members' Bill, C-216, "An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to enact the Expungement of Certain Drug-related Convictions Act and the National Strategy on Substance Use Act":

Jenny Kwan (NDP) Vancouver East, BC

"Madam Speaker, I would like to start the debate with this: Dead people do not detox.

I want, in particular, for the Liberal and Conservative members to let that sink in. I want the Prime Minister to know his excuse that decriminalization is not a silver bullet is a false argument to deflect his lack of courage to take meaningful action to save lives.

Let me be very clear that overdose deaths are preventable deaths. People are dying from drug poisoning, and it does not have to be this way.

The passage of Bill C-216 will save lives. It is within the power of every member of the House to show they value life without judgment and that they want to stop the overdose crisis in their communities. All they to have to do is vote for my colleague's bill, Bill C-216.

It is a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, expunge criminal records related only to minor possession convictions, and work with provinces to find health-centred solutions to end the crisis once and for all. These include ensuring a safer regulated supply of drugs and providing universal access to recovery, treatment and harm reduction services.

The overdose crisis has been wreaking devastation upon families and communities for years. In B.C., the toll has been the heaviest. The year 2021 was the deadliest yet on record for the number of overdose deaths, and took 2,224 lives too early.

Since the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2016 by the provincial medical health officer in B.C., more than 9,410 people have died of illicit drug toxicity. Just last month, there were 165 suspected drug toxicity deaths in British Columbia. That is 5.3 deaths per day, and it has become the leading cause of unnatural death in British Columbia.

In 2018, there were four and a half times more overdose deaths than deaths from motor vehicle crashes, suicides, homicides and prescription drug overdoses combined. Overdose deaths occurred across all walks of life, all age groups and all of the socio-economic spectrum. Parents of judges, doctors and teachers have lost loved ones to the overdose crisis.

I still recall the heartbreak of a mother whose daughter became ill and needed surgery and then became addicted to opioids due to over-prescribed painkillers. When the doctor stopped the prescription, her daughter turned to street drugs to manage her pain. There was pain and anguish on her face when it was revealed that big pharma hid the addictive nature of opioids.

I cannot imagine the devastation of a parent reeling from the shock that their child, a high school student, died of an overdose. I know too many people in my community who use drugs to help them manage the trauma they have experienced, and are just trying to survive the best they can. That should not be a death sentence for them. I know too many people who have lost loved ones to the drug poisoning crisis. There have been 9,410 deaths since 2016, with 2,224 occurring last year and 5.3 deaths every day.

These are not just numbers. They are real people: sons, daughters, friends, husbands, mothers and loved ones. That is why we must stop this war on drugs. It has failed dismally and has done more harm than good.

The Liberal government likes to say it believes in science and medical experts. It should believe it when B.C.’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, recommends that the federal government decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use.

The Conservatives like to say they believe in law and order. Well, they should believe the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police when it agrees that addiction is a public health issue and that evidence suggests that decriminalization of simple possession is an effective way to reduce the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use. We cannot arrest our way out of the overdose crisis.

Thirty jurisdictions globally have adopted or are beginning to adopt a shift in drug policy that moves away from criminalizing people who use drugs to one of decriminalization. The Portuguese model has given evidence that, when utilized along with other interventions, including harm reduction, prevention, enforcement and treatment strategies, decriminalization has led to an increase in treatment uptake, a reduction in drug-related deaths, and no increase in drug use.

In May 2021, the City of Vancouver submitted a request for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to Health Canada, requesting urgent action to provide an exemption that would decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the city’s boundaries. One year later, the federal government has still not taken any meaningful action to advance this call for action.

As the Liberals drag their feet on this, with every passing day more people are dying from this overdose crisis. Make no mistake, the cost of inaction is real human lives. It also creates persistent personal, social and structural stigma against addiction, increases risk-taking and is an impediment to public health harm reduction initiatives.

The self-proclaimed feminist Prime Minister should know this: Criminalization causes greater harm to women. Women incarcerated for drug offences in B.C. tend to be younger and often undereducated. They commonly have a diagnosed mental disorder and a history of victimization. Incarcerated women have a higher rate of hepatitis C and HIV infections than men. Many are mothers. Separating children from their mothers is devastating, often resulting in foster care placement. Children with parents in prison are more likely to drop out of school and become involved with the prison system themselves, thus continuing the vicious cycle.

As lawmakers, it is our job to put in place policies that will help break this cycle. That is why I urge every member in this House to support Bill C-216. At least, let us send it to committee so that we could have that vigorous debate and so that we could invite witnesses to come before us to answer some of those questions that I just heard the Liberal parliamentary secretary raise. Even if members do not support this motion or have doubts about it, they should do the right thing by sending it to committee to hear witnesses.

Aside from decriminalization, Bill C-216 also calls for the expungement of criminal records that are solely related to minor possession. A criminal record poses often insurmountable barriers for people in finding employment and housing. They should not have to wear that as a noose around their neck. We need to change our laws.

The harms caused by interacting with the criminal justice system and the additional barriers posed by a criminal record throw people into a vicious cycle that often impacts the most vulnerable in our society. That is exactly why the NDP motion also asks the government to work with provinces to develop a strategy informed by health-centred solutions that addresses the root causes of problematic substance use.

To ensure a successful response to the overdose crisis, decriminalization must be complemented by the necessary supports. We can break this cycle today if we can act with courage and compassion.

I ask the government to end the war on drugs and save lives by decriminalizing personal possession now. The NDP motion is calling on the government to do exactly that. There can be no more delays. The time to act is now."

Latest posts

Are you ready to take action?

Constituent Resources
Mobile Offices
Contact Jenny

Sign up for updates