Jenny Kwan, MP

Member of Parliament, Vancouver East

What Portugal is doing on the Opioid Crisis and the Environment

This motion provides Canadians with the opportunity to understand, appreciate, and join in the celebration of traditions and heritage of the Portuguese community. I believe this also gives us an opportunity to look to 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 out of 100 Portuguese citizens were using heroin, overdose deaths were robbing families of their loved ones far too soon, and dirty needles were contributing to the highest levels of HIV infections in Europe.

A little 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.

Instead, if an individual is caught possessing what was 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 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 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 fear-mongering was 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 less 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 that 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 that there is much we can learn from Portugal. The success of harm reduction in Vancouver East, most noteworthy 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 healthcare 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 back 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 the Portuguese model of harm reduction resulted in a dramatic decrease in overdose deaths and 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 Portuguese model.