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Canada's New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 15, 2021.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

The federal NDP hopes to push the government to take stronger action on the opioid crisis with a new private member’s bill decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is putting his weight behind the bill, tabled by his NDP colleague Gord Johns, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs including cocaine and heroin.

Singh wants to change the law to make it easier to help drug users, treating them as people with a health problem, rather than criminals. He said 20,000 Canadians have died of an overdose over the last five years, accusing the government of not treating the issue with sufficient urgency.

The NDP leader is to front a panel of MPs and stakeholders on Thursday calling on the government to back the bill.

A private member’s bill, especially when put forward by an opposition MP, has a far lower chance of surviving the legislative steps to become law, than a government bill. NDP MP Don Davies introduced a similar bill last year that fizzled out.

But the party believes this bill will be debated and put to a vote because it has been introduced early in the life of the new Parliament. Johns came in fourth in a random draw of MPs to determine the order of precedence for private member’s bills.

Johns, the NDP addictions spokesman, said he was hopeful that MPs from all parties, and not just his party, would back the bill.

“This shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Johns said. “We need to decriminalize immediately and save lives by providing access to a regulated safer supply of drugs for users.”

The bill would also allow Canadians to have criminal convictions for possession of drugs expunged, which Johns said would help them get jobs and housing.

Singh accused the government of ignoring calls from public health experts to decriminalize personal drug use, saying the delay was costing lives.

“From big cities to smaller communities, countless families across the country have suffered the devastating impact of the overdose crisis firsthand,” said Singh in a statement.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created his new cabinet last fall, he established a new mental health and addictions minister, Carolyn Bennett, and tasked her with forming policies to tackle opioid addiction.

Maja Staka, a spokeswoman for Bennett, said she had a mandate to “advance a comprehensive strategy to address problematic substance use.”

“The core of that strategy will be combatting the opioid overdose epidemic, a public health crisis that continues to take a tragic toll on families, friends, and communities across Canada,” she said.

She said the government had channelled hundreds of millions of dollars into tackling the problem.

“We are committed to improving safe supply, reducing harms, and using resources to divert people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and towards supportive and trusted relationships,” she added.

The government is currently reviewing applications by British Columbia, and the cities of Vancouver and Toronto, to remove criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

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