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The federal government has said that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already deadly and ongoing public-health crisis of opioid overdoses and death.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government must decriminalize drugs to save lives as the opioid crisis worsens across the country, the NDP’s public safety critic said at a House of Commons committee hearing.

NDP MP Alistair MacGregor told Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino on Tuesday that when people in his community use street drugs, they are playing Russian roulette with their lives and they don’t know whether their next hit will kill them.

“They are addicted,” Mr. MacGregor said. “They have no choice. This is how they get through their day-to-day life. So I implore you, minister, use this moment. Do the right thing. Change policy so that we save lives.”

Many opioid substances remain on the books under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, Mr. MacGregor added.

The opioid crisis has grown to devastating proportions in Canada, particularly during the global pandemic. Policy experts, along with the federal NDP, have also called on the federal government to pursue decriminalization.

“We have had testimony and indeed it’s very public, proclamations from the City of Vancouver, the Government of B.C., the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, calling for decriminalization,” Mr. MacGregor said.

The B.C. MP also referenced testimony delivered to the committee from a staff-sergeant with the Vancouver Police department linking the profitability of the illicit drug trade and firearms. MPs on the public safety committee are currently studying the issue of gun control, illegal arms trafficking and an increase in gun crimes committed by members of street gangs.

“Profitability is driving gang warfare,” Mr. MacGregor said. “We have an opportunity before us as policymakers. We have many notable stakeholders calling for this. Why, then, are we still debating whether to decriminalize drugs and treat them as the health issue that they so very rightly are?”

Mr. Mendicino, a former prosecutor, replied saying that he agrees opioid and substance issues are not always best dealt with by the criminal justice system.

“I think we need to, absolutely, have that conversation,” he said. “We have to do it in a way that is principled. We have to do it in a way that really looks at the evidence, and we have to do it in a way that will ensure that we are using the criminal justice system as a last resort.”

Mr. Mendicino also said he would be the first to acknowledge that putting someone who is an addict in jail is not going to solve the problem.

Federal data from December, 2021 show there were 24,626 apparent opioid-toxicity deaths in Canada between January, 2016 and June, 2021. It also indicates there were 1,720 apparent deaths between April and June, 2021, with approximately 19 deaths per day. This represented a 66-per-cent increase compared with April to June, 2019.

The federal government has said that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already deadly and ongoing public-health crisis of opioid overdoses and death. It also says several factors have likely contributed to the problem during the pandemic, including an increasingly toxic drug supply, more feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety and limited availability of services.

During the past election campaign, the Liberal platform said the opioid overdose epidemic had worsened during COVID-19 and that in order to save lives, a “whole-of-society approach” was required to address causes and support individuals.

The party also said a re-elected Liberal government would take steps, such as investing $25-million for public education, to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and $500-million to support the provinces and territories to provide access to treatments.

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