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Liberals pressed on whether B.C. drug decriminalization could pave the way

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By Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa

The federal Liberals faced calls Wednesday to take a national approach to decriminalization amid the mounting death toll of the opioid crisis, even as the House of Commons voted against an NDP bill to allow drugs for personal use countrywide.

After the rejection of the bill was announced, someone in the chamber could be heard crying out, “Shame on you!”

Next year, British Columbia will join a handful of jurisdictions around the world where drug users will not face charges for possessing small amounts of some illicit drugs for personal use.

“There isn’t at this stage any larger discussion on decriminalization,” federal Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, noting that the issue falls under the health portfolio, not justice.

Asked in French whether Ottawa should take a pan-Canadian approach rather than considering individual jurisdictions’ requests, Lametti said that is something that should be studied, but the government is not doing so now.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to leave the door open a little on Wednesday, saying the federal government will not pursue decriminalization with other jurisdictions without putting “the system and supports in place.”

Trudeau said the government took this approach with B.C. by building capacity and offering many ways to support people, such as projects offering a safe supply of illicit drugs.

Carolyn Bennett, minister of mental health and addictions, left the door wider still.

She said the government will watch how decriminalization unfolds in B.C. to see if it achieves its intended goals for “both public safety and public health.”

NDP MP Gord Johns said Wednesday that the federal government had an opportunity to pass his private member’s bill, which would amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize personal drug possession across Canada.

Johns, who is the party’s critic for mental health and addictions, said the toxicity of the drug supply is claiming Canadian lives.

“I hope they’ll do the right thing,” said Johns ahead of the vote.

“Otherwise they are going to have blood on their hands.”

The Bloc Québécois, Greens and a handful of Liberal MPs ultimately joined the NDP in voting in favour of the bill, but it was defeated 71-248 with the Conservatives and most Liberals voting against.

Bennett said that once B.C.’s plan has rolled out, and the results can be assessed, the federal government will be able to respond to any “unintended consequences.”

“I think all the other jurisdictions will be interested in learning from the B.C. experience,” said Bennett.

Not every province was jumping at the chance.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday he has concerns about the federal government’s decision to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs in B.C.

The Manitoba government also said Tuesday it will not follow B.C.’s example.

Quebec Premier François Legault said Wednesday the province has no plans to pursue decriminalization, adding the government does not think it is necessary.

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan’s government said it was not considering any decision to criminally exempt substances like methamphetamine and cocaine.

“It is unknown what potential long-term effects that decriminalizing illicit drugs will have with regards to public safety. Our government is focused on ensuring that treatment services are available to help people with substance abuse issues to access recovery,” it said in a statement.

New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said she was interested to hear what B.C. has done but it was too early to comment. Her province has been working to help people affected by the drug crisis rather than criminalize them, she said.

On the campaign trail in Ontario, the New Democrats said they would work with Ottawa on decriminalizing drugs for personal use if elected, but the Liberals aren’t considering a similar move. The Progressive Conservatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Separately, the City of Toronto has asked Ottawa to allow it to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs.

Bennett said there has also been some interest from Montreal, Edmonton and Saskatoon, but they have not submitted proposals seeking decriminalization.

Trudeau has said in years past that the federal government would not pursue decriminalization as an option for tackling the toxic drug and opioid overdose crisis.

Conservative MP Brad Vis, who represents the B.C. riding of Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon, said he doesn’t think decriminalization will fix the crisis in the province without also improving access to addiction treatments and mental health supports.

B.C.’s three-year exemption from federal drug laws means people with small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will not have their drugs seized by police.

Vis said the province already had “de facto decriminalization,” in which most police officers didn’t arrest people for simple possession, nor did the Crown lay charges against those individuals.

As a crisis of opioid-related overdoses and deaths rages on in Canada, advocates have long been saying that decriminalization would help to reduce stigma associated with drug use and help save lives.

Since January 2016, almost 27,000 Canadians have died from opioid-related causes, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

— With files from Mickey Djuric in Regina and Kevin Bissett in Fredericton

Storytelling is in our DNA. We provide credible, compelling multimedia storytelling and services in English and French to help captivate your digital, broadcast and print audiences. As Canada’s national news agency for 100 years, we give Canadians an unbiased news source, driven by truth, accuracy and timeliness.

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Author Salman Rushdie attacked on lecture stage in New York

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CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. (AP) — Salman Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was attacked and apparently stabbed in the neck Friday by a man who rushed the stage as he was about to give a lecture in western New York.

An Associated Press reporter witnessed a man confront Rushdie on stage at the Chautauqua Institution and punch or stab him 10 to 15 times as he was being introduced. The 75-year-old author was pushed or fell to the floor, and the man was arrested.

State police said Rushdie was apparently stabbed in the neck and was flown to a hospital. His condition wasn’t immediately known. The moderator at the event was also attacked and suffered a minor head injury, police said.

Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience. Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.

The assailant ran onto the platform “and started pounding on Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became abundantly clear in a few seconds that he was being beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.

Another spectator, Kathleen Jones, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.

“We thought perhaps it was part of a stunt to show that there’s still a lot of controversy around this author. But it became evident in a few seconds” that it wasn’t, she said.

A bloodied Rushdie was quickly surrounded by a small group of people who held up his legs, presumably to send more blood to his chest.

Rushdie has been a prominent spokesman for free expression and liberal causes. He is a former president of PEN America, which said it was “reeling from shock and horror” at the attack.

“We can think of no comparable incident of a public violent attack on a literary writer on American soil,” CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.

Rushdie “has been targeted for his words for decades but has never flinched nor faltered,” she added.

His 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims. Often-violent protests against Rushdie erupted around the world, including a riot that killed 12 people in Mumbai.

The novel was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini died that same year.

Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t focused on the writer.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack.

A bounty of over $3 million has also been offered for anyone who kills Rushdie.

The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, which included a round-the-clock armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism overall.

He has said he is proud of his fight for freedom of expression, saying in a 2012 talk in New York that terrorism is really the art of fear.

“The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid,” he said.

Iran’s government has long since distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered. The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free expression, said money was raised to boost the reward for his killing as recently as 2016, underscoring that the fatwa for his death still stands.

In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.

Rushdie rose to prominence with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children,” but his name became known around the world after “The Satanic Verses.”

The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors don’t pass through metal detectors or undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors to their century-old cottages unlocked at night.

Police said a state trooper was assigned to Rushdie’s lecture.

The Chautauqua center is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before. Speakers address a different topic each week. Rushdie and moderator Henry Reese were set to discuss “the United States as asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.”

___

Associated Press writers Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; and Jennifer Peltz in New York City contributed to this report.

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Crime

Wanted man cut through fence to cross U.S. border with children: Border Patrol

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United States Border Patrol says a convicted Canadian sex offender drove through a barbed wire fence to cross the intentional border with two children and their mother.

U.S. border patrol says agents found a cut fence near the Turner Port of Entry between Saskatchewan and Montana.

Mounties in Saskatchewan issued an Amber Alert for the boy and girl Monday and it was extended into South Dakota Wednesday.

Benjamin Martin Moore, who is 50, was taken into custody in South Dakota soon after.

The seven-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy, as well as their mother, were with Moore.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirm that Moore, as well as the mother, remain in custody.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2022.

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