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Commons committee urges feds to consider decriminalizing simple drug possession

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OTTAWA — The House of Commons health committee is urging the federal government to look at Portugal’s decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs and examine how the idea could be “positively applied in Canada.”

The committee made the recommendation, among others, in report produced after committee members travelled across Canada to witness the impacts of methamphetamine use and its rapid increase in some communities. 

Many witnesses who appeared before the committee called for the federal government to work with provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous communities and law-enforcement agencies to decriminalize simple possession of small quantities of illicit substances, the report says.

It also says the committee heard during its informal meetings across the country that even some health-care providers have negative attitudes toward people with substance-use problems.

The report details testimony from health experts who told the committee that decriminalizing simple possession is necessary because problematic substance use and addiction is a health problem for users and criminalization prevents them from seeking help.

“Witnesses recommended that the federal government examine the implementation of the Portuguese model of decriminalization of the possession of illicit substances, which included a scaling-up of treatment programs and the creation of diversion programs for offenders who commit crimes related to their substance-use disorders,” the report says.

The federal Liberals have faced mounting pressure from health advocates and even members of their own caucus to pursue decriminalization of simple possession.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said he is planning to introduce a private member’s bill built on the idea that Canada should treat drug use as a health issue and not as a crime. It will include removing penalties for simple possession of any drug from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The bill is vanishingly unlikely to get anywhere before the fall election, but Erskine-Smith said he will look to re-introduce the bill in a new Parliament should he be re-elected. He said other jurisdictions have found that removing criminal sanctions for drug possession means more people seek treatment.

“I think it is incumbent on me and like-minded members of Parliament to continue to raise the issue and continue to draw attention to the evidence if it means saving lives,” he said.

The Commons health committee is also recommending a public-awareness campaign to provide “credible and reliable information” about the potential harms of methamphetamine use and the risks posed by the toxicity of the illegal supply.

Its report details how the rise of meth across the country highlights the complexity of addressing problematic substance use and addiction in Canada, with witnesses explaining its use is caused by a set of “interwoven factors” including harmful childhood experiences, poor mental health, poverty and homelessness.

The committee heard that methamphetamine can be particularly destructive for some people because it’s highly addictive and can bring on psychosis, the report said, and many people who use the drug don’t know the havoc it can cause.

The Conservatives on the health committee issued a dissenting report saying that several other things need to be done before decriminalization, pointing out a number of differences between Canada and Portugal.

There are 170 recovery facilities for 11 million people in Portugal. The country offers mental-health supports and mandatory education in schools and for the public regarding the harms of drugs, the Conservatives say, and it is unrealistic to assume Canada could achieve the same results without implementing several of those mandatory elements.

“Canada does not have the recovery capacity available currently,” the dissenting report said. “We also do not have enough available and affordable mental-health supports, mandatory education regarding harms, or a correctional system that could mimic Portugal’s.”

In the summer of 2017, Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould — then the Liberal ministers of health and justice —travelled to Portugal to learn more about the country’s approach to drugs.

Portugal can teach Canada a “great deal” about how taking a public-health approach to drug policy helps the justice system work better, Wilson-Raybould said in a statement at the time.

So far, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to pursue decriminalization.

Last April, at a convention in Halifax, the Liberal rank and file passed a non-binding resolution on decriminalizing simple possession and consumption of all illicit drugs; Trudeau immediately shot the idea down.

“On that particular issue, as I’ve said, it’s not part of our plans,” he said.

—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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Blair says more gun-control action needed, signals no new steps before election

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OTTAWA — Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair says more must be done to address gun violence, but is also signalling that no new measures will be taken before the fall election.

Steps could — and should — be taken to prevent the theft, illegal diversion and cross-border smuggling of handguns, Blair said Tuesday. 

As he entered a cabinet meeting, Blair emphasized the importance of secure storage of firearms to prevent them from being stolen and ending up in the wrong hands.

The government is also open to working with municipalities to allow them to decide exactly where, or even if, firearms can be stored within their boundaries, he said.

However, the parliamentary sitting is expected to conclude shortly and the government is scrambling to tie up loose ends before the summer recess and an election campaign likely to begin in September.  

“Some of this would require regulatory and legislative change,” Blair said. “And I think it’s important not only to do the right thing, but to take the time to do it right.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Blair last August to study the possibility of a ban on handguns and assault-style rifles after a shooting spree in Toronto.

A recently released summary of a federal consultation said Canadians were divided on the idea.

Still, Blair’s office said late last month that no options had been ruled out to clamp down on guns “designed to hunt people” as it weighed new measures.

Rumours of a federal ban on the popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifle began to circulate.

While Blair reiterated Tuesday there are firearms the government considers “so dangerous that there really is no place in a safe and civil society for them,” he made no firm commitment to ban or buy back such guns from owners.

Blair stressed a need for measures to ensure secure storage, prevent people from buying firearms on behalf of criminals and deter smuggling into Canada from the United States, which he called “the largest handgun arsenal in the world.”

“There are a number of very effective measures that I believe that we can and must take to create a safer environment.”

The law already requires safe storage of firearms, but there has been a “significant increase” in the theft of large numbers of handguns from homes and retailers, with the guns ending up on the street in the wrong hands, he said.

Blair acknowledged there are responsible handgun owners who obey all the rules. “We may ask them to undertake additional measures to secure their weapons to make sure that they’re not vulnerable to being stolen.”

Allowing municipalities to enact additional restrictions on handguns would not only be “wholly inadequate,” it would also be inefficient, said Heidi Rathjen, co-ordinator of PolySeSouvient, which wants an overhaul of the gun classification system with the ultimate aim of banning weapons specifically designed to kill people.

“All one has to do is consider the glaring disaster resulting from a patchwork of state and local gun laws south of the border,” she said Tuesday.

“And one has to ask: why would stricter controls on handguns be justified in cities and not in rural areas? It seems more like the Liberals chose not to deal with the highly politicized issue of banning handguns and instead decided to pass the buck to municipalities.”

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press


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Prevention key focus of dementia strategy released by federal government

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OTTAWA — The cornerstone philosophy behind the federal government’s long-awaited strategy for confronting dementia is a simple one: prevent Canadians from developing the condition in the first place.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, who unveiled the strategy Monday at an event in Toronto, said she has an intimate understanding of the difficulty that comes with dealing with a family member who’s in cognitive decline.

“Being the daughter of a mother who lives with dementia, it is certainly near and dear to my heart,” Petitpas Taylor said in an interview.

“When I see many family members that have had to deal with the challenges, I know, because I’ve been there and we certainly want to make sure that we do all that we can to alleviate the stress that’s involved.”

The government’s dementia plan, which focuses primarily on prevention, advancing therapies and helping patients and caregivers, includes $50 million over five years to support the strategy, money that was announced in the federal budget earlier this year.

It defines dementia as a collection of symptoms affecting the brain that include a decline in cognitive abilities such as memory, language, basic math skills, judgment and planning. Mood and behaviour can also change as a result, the document notes.

The report says more than 419,000 Canadian seniors have been diagnosed with some form of dementia, and they rely on an average of 26 hours a week of help from relatives and friends. Some 78,600 new cases of dementia are diagnosed every year among those aged 65 years and older, with 63 per cent of those being women.

At its current rate, the condition will cost caregivers and the health care system a staggering $16.6 billion a year by 2031.

“As this number does not include those under age 65 who may have a young onset diagnosis, nor those that have not been diagnosed, the true picture of dementia in Canada may be somewhat larger,” it says.

“While dementia is not an inevitable part of aging, age is the most important risk factor. As a result, with a growing and aging population, the number of Canadians living with dementia is expected to increase in future decades.”

Canadians can stave off the danger as they get older by getting more exercise, adopting healthier eating habits and avoiding tobacco, all of which can increase the risk of stroke, a common cause of dementia.

“There is growing persuasive scientific evidence that healthy living from an early age may prevent or delay the onset of dementia.”

Petitpas Taylor also announced $46 million over five years for the second phase of Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, a hub for research on dementia created in 2014.

The federal government plans to contribute $31.6 million through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, with an additional $14.4 million being provided by partners, including the Alzheimer Society.

Alzheimer Society of Canada CEO Pauline Tardif sent out a email Monday urging supporters to keep up the pressure on the government through this fall’s election campaign, in order to ensure dementia remains “top of mind for our politicians.”

—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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