Speech in opposition to Bill C-2 , an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in opposition to Bill C-2 , an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

I remain very concerned about the government's motivation in introducing the bill in the face of a unanimous loss. The Supreme Court of Canada in 2011 unanimously defeated the government's position on this matter. To read the bill, it would almost suggest that the government has not read the judgment or is flying in the face of that judgment.

It also causes me great concern that the Minister of Justice would see fit to introduce the bill in the face of his obligation under subsection 4.1(1) of the Department of Justice Act, wherein advice from his officials on the constitutionality of legislation is required. However, we know that the standards of the Department of Justice these days are very low in that regard, having had the benefit of a whistleblower who told us that instructions had been sent to departmental lawyers saying that if there was even a 5% chance of a provision or law passing muster under the charter, then it would be fine to recommend it going ahead as constitutional and to introduce the law.

I say this by way of preamble, because as a reformed lawyer, I have many friends who were involved in this litigation. Colleagues have told me that this is simply a bad-faith effort, or at least a patently unconstitutional response to the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. They cannot wait to get this in the courts again, not believing that it could possibly pass muster, for reasons I will try to outline in my remarks.

The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver has disproportionately high levels of illegal drug use, poverty, and homelessness and high rates of HIV and hepatitis C infections. InSite came to the rescue with the approval of the City of Vancouver, the police department, and stakeholders in that troubled community. It succeeded in reducing blood-borne illnesses and in providing access to counselling, detox, and other services that simply were not being accessed by this high-risk population.

As colleagues have pointed out, studies have shown that InSite contributed to a 35% reduction in deaths by overdose in that troubled area of Vancouver as compared to nearby neighbourhoods. The reduction was only 9% in other neighbourhoods compared to 35% in the Downtown Eastside.

This is not the report of merely an academic who looked at statistics. This report was co-authored by the world-famous expert Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. In a moment, I will contrast this success rate for the safe injection site with what is happening in my community of Victoria. There is a very troubling difference between the two communities.

There is a worldwide trend that InSite was part of. It is a trend that was outlined in June 2012 in a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The title of its annual report, “The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How the Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic”, I think is provocative. It is a report from world-famous scientists and other public policy experts.

I found it interesting that in their analysis of places such as the InSite facility, which was referred to in their study, they concluded that criminalization actually encourages unsafe injection procedures, like sharing needles, as addicts hasten to inject in order to avoid detection and law enforcement. That global commission supported InSite and other safe injection facilities.

As my colleagues have pointed out, this initiative was undertaken, long before it was in Canada, in places like the Netherlands, Germany, all over Europe, and Australia. It seems that the current government simply does not get that the Supreme Court of Canada was looking certainly at public safety and also at public health concerns. The Conservatives do not seem to get that part of the judgment.

That is not just me speaking. A number of colleagues, such as Professor Elaine Hyshka, in a 2012 edition of the Canadian Journal of Public Health, concluded that the Conservatives' approach to drug use is “motivated by ideological principles of punishment and retribution towards drug users”.

It is that part of the Supreme Court of Canada's judgment that I must go back to, because it seems that it has been ignored by the government in enacting Bill C-2 in response to the Supreme Court's unanimous decision:

The Minister's failure to grant a [section] 56 exemption to Insite engaged the claimants [section] 7 [charter] rights and contravened the principles of fundamental justice...[It is also] grossly disproportionate.... [during its eight years of operation, Insite has been proven to save lives with] no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada....

Where, as here, a supervised injection site will decrease the risk of death and disease, and there is little or no evidence that it will have a negative impact on public safety, the Minister should generally grant an exemption.

Where are we with Bill C-2? How did the government respond to the Supreme Court of Canada's unanimous decision? I say it responded either in bad faith without reading the decision or by ignoring what no doubt was the advice given by lawyers on the constitutionality of this initiative. I say that because of three or four things.

First, the preamble to Bill C-2 says that an exemption “should only be granted in exceptional circumstances and after the applicant has addressed rigorous criteria”. What are the criteria? Section 56.1, a new section this legislation would introduce, has some 26 conditions that must be met. Actually, there are 30, because of some subsections; they go from (a) to (z). These are conditions the minister must consider when approving an exemption for medical purposes.

I am not saying that these are illegitimate conditions, but the number of hurdles in the way of a community ever getting a safe injection site are so enormous that it is hard to believe that this is a good faith effort to apply the Supreme Court of Canada's decision. The minister then sent it to the Public Safety Commission rather than to the health committee, again an indication that the public health aspects may not have been taken as seriously as one would have expected.

All of this information would have to be provided in prescribed form. There is requirement after requirement, and it has to be done in the prescribed form. There is no time limit as to when the application would have to be considered by the relevant minister. It goes on and on. One wonders again whether there really was an effort to allow a safe injection site as per the spirit of this legislation.

In the time available, I want to contrast the record in Vancouver, with Insite, and what is going on in my community of Victoria. I am finding the following quote from the coroner a shocking one. Last year, the B.C. coroner reported that there were 44 deaths from illicit drug use on Vancouver Island in 2011. Sixteen of those deaths occurred in the greater Victoria area. He noted that Vancouver Island is the region with the highest rate of deaths related to illicit drug use in the entire province of British Columbia.

The Centre for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria concluded that Victoria's per capita death rate is almost 30% higher than in the Lower Mainland. Just a few kilometres away, a ferry ride away from Victoria, in the community where InSite exists, 30% fewer people die from overdoses per capita than on Vancouver Island, which does not have a safe injection site. All Bill C-2 would do is make it virtually impossible for us to realize the public health benefits that have been achieved on the mainland.

By way of conclusion, this legislation does not address the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in a meaningful and good faith fashion. It will simply provide obstacle after obstacle to achieving the public health benefits that the Supreme Court of Canada found, on the facts, to exist in InSite.