A man with a grey beard and hair wearing a pale blue shirt and a woman with shoulder length light brown hair, dark rimmed glasses, and a black suit sit at a desk.
Gord Johns, NDP MP Courtney-Alberni, BC, left, and NDP Dartmouth North MLA Susan Leblanc. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Member of Parliament Gord Johns was in Halifax on Monday trying to drum up support for a bill he believes should it pass could prevent thousands of deaths from drug overdoses. Both addicts and occasional users of recreational drugs are now at greater risk of dying since a substance called fentanyl — which is 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin — has been contaminating or “poisoning” the supply of illegal drugs. In the past six years, 380 Nova Scotians and at least 25,000 Canadians have died from opioid overdoses, in what Johns describes as “the second health crisis (after COVID) gripping this country.”

“I live in a community of 18,000 people. Just in the last year, I know six people who died because of a poisoned drug supply,” said Johns, tearing up at a news conference co-hosted by Dartmouth North MLA Susan Leblanc. “My friend Judy who worked in law firm, she was a recreational drug user. A fisherman who was the father of one of my son’s lacrosse teammates, and two who were children of friends. It’s pretty serious and it’s emotional.”

Johns wants Nova Scotians to write their MPs requesting they vote in support of Bill C-216 expected to come up for debate during the third week of May. This is long-shot legislation. Only 2% of bills put forward by individual parliamentarians have ever garnered enough votes to become law. And even though NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has promised to prop up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau until 2025, Bill C-216 was not part of that deal. So, Johns needs a free vote and all-party support if he hopes to succeed.

Bill C-216 reflects the recommendations brought forward last June by a Health Canada Expert Task Force on Substance Abuse. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has accepted the recommendations. The task force was appointed to address the growing number of deaths from drug overdoses during a pandemic when not many people were paying attention.

What the bill does

John’s Bill-216 has three components: (1) decriminalize the personal possession of drugs so substance users don’t fear punishment when seeking support and treatment; (2) erase criminal records for the possession of drugs because convictions create barriers to getting housing and jobs; and (3) create national policy and national standards to provide a safer supply of drugs.

Johns quotes Toronto Police Chief James Ramer:

“Decriminalization of the simple possession of all drugs — combined with the scale-up of prevention, harm reduction, and treatment services — is a more effective way to address the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use.”

During his visit to Halifax’s Brunswick Street Mission, Johns said he learned about the wait list for people seeking detox treatment, adding “there are huge gaps when it comes to treatment and the system is underfunded.”

Dartmouth North MLA Susan Leblanc said a safe supply is “crucial for the health and well being of people who use drugs.”

“The Nova Scotia New Democratic Party support the development of a safe supply of drugs in Nova Scotia as part of a harm reduction approach,” Leblanc said.

Asked what “threshold” or amount would be considered appropriate for personal possession, Johns said that is an important issue that would be discussed at the committee stage, if the bill makes it past the vote in May. Criminal convictions would continue to be sought for people selling illegal drugs to others. Johns said “greed” on the part of organized crime means illegal drugs are easily available while their huge profit margin leads to in-fighting and gun violence.

A storefront at 2151 Gottingen Street.
Direction 180. Photo: Direction 180/Facebook

In Nova Scotia, making sure drugs are safer and people don’t die alone at home are behind the establishment of a safe injection site in Halifax supported by Direction 180. Within the next few weeks, a second safe injection site will be opened in Sydney supported by the Ally Centre of Cape Breton. In a handful of cities across Canada, copies or substitutes for illegal drugs like heroin are being dispensed by machines to improve access to safe drugs. The “MySafe” dispensers are part of a pilot project being run by Health Canada. The vending machines are made by a company in Dartmouth called Dispension Industries, which is racking up big sales south of the border. In Canada, drug users must first be matched with a nurse practitioner or health care worker in order to participate in the pilot project.

In 2021, 46 people in Nova Scotia died from apparent drug overdoses, the lowest number in five years.

Johns said pilot projects need to be scaled up more quickly and made available to more people. He claims one reason a disproportionate percentage of chronic drug users and prisoners are from African-Canadian and Indigenous communities is because they have experienced trauma as children or youth. The law needs to change,  Johns said.

“It’s time to treat substance use and the toxic drug supply crisis as a health issue, not a criminal issue,” he said. “Politicians are more worried about votes than they are about saving lives and what we have seen is that these lives don’t matter enough.”

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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