Bill C-37 – Addressing the Opioid Crisis while Protecting Civil Liberties

Elizabeth May Saanich-Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise to present an amendment to the bill, but I want to say that it is extremely important that this legislation be passed and that we move expeditiously on the fentanyl crisis. The opioid crisis is a national public health crisis, and for the first time in my life as a parliamentarian, I actually voted with the government on time allocation, because it is critical that we get the bill passed.

There were things said just moments ago in this chamber to which I must respond. This is not hogwash. It is based on the evidence. I was part of this Parliament when we debated the attempts by the Conservatives to bring forward conditions that were not reasonable. They were not put there in the interests of public health and safety. They were explicitly and clearly part of an ongoing effort by the previous Harper government to fight against the existence of Insite in Vancouver or its application as a model for safe consumption sites, which worked in saving lives, and to make them unavailable to people in the other jurisdictions.

I support Bill C-37, but I would have wished, as I moved at committee and as the member for Vancouver East also moved at committee, that there would have been more effort to streamline the approval of safe consumption sites where they are desperately needed to confront the opioid crisis.

I am bringing forward an amendment. It is difficult, I have to say, to bring forward an amendment at this stage. However, it is often the case that when there is an urgent circumstance and our attention is focused in one area, it is easy to say yes, it will be okay, because the need is so great that we can ignore other concerns.

This amendment has been brought forward by both the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. There is concern about clause 53 of the bill. Clause 53 of the bill allows suppression of excerpts in the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act. Again, when focusing on one thing, such as terrorism, concern for civil liberties can be lessened, and that is definitely the trend. In the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, Canada Border Services agents and employees of Canada Post are allowed to open packages in a way that would not have previously been allowed. Packages that weigh 30 grams or more are not to be opened, but if they are larger, and they constitute packages, they are routinely now opened.

It is critical that we examine the practicality of this. If a civil liberties organization said that in the case of fentanyl, which we know can be absolutely lethal in tiny grains of an amount, we are going to turn a blind eye and say that no one should be allowed to open letters, that would be an unreasonable position.

What the Civil Liberties Association is saying is that if a letter is identified and there are reasonable and probable grounds to open that letter, then get a warrant. This is not cumbersome. This is why we have the rule of law and protections for privacy and for civil liberties. Once law enforcement agencies have extreme and sweeping powers to open any letter, it does not take much imagination to imagine the ways in which this power can and will be abused.

I want to draw the attention of the House to this amendment. It would suppress just one clause of the bill. It would not have the effect of saying that border services agents and Canada Post could not open letters that they suspected contained fentanyl. That is not the purpose of my amendment. The purpose of my amendment is to underscore that if they are going to open letters, they need to have a warrant. It is very clear that these broad and sweeping powers will be in the future misused. Letters will be opened by people who are suspecting something else and not necessarily because of the fentanyl crisis.

I do not need to use all the speaking time I have available to speak to the amendment. I support Bill C-37. I want to see it passed, but it should not pass with our focus exclusively on the opioid crisis without taking a moment to consider whether we are making a mistake here. Should we not require at least a warrant before border services agents and postal officials have the right to open very small packages?

I dedicate my commitment to Bill C-37 and to working on the opioid crisis to one of my constituents, Leslie McBain, a founder of Moms Stop the Harm, because she lost her son in this crisis.

It is not just downtown Vancouver that is seeing an unreasonable and extraordinary number of deaths from this crisis. Within in my own riding, and on the remote Gulf Islands, we have seen people die from the fentanyl crisis. We need this piece of legislation.

I will agree with my friend, the member for Oshawa, on one thing. We need more. We need these safe consumption sites, but we also need programming for mental health. We need programs for addiction counselling. We need ongoing support so that people who have gone through addiction crisis counselling and are clean of the drug have the support they need so they do not go back to it. This is a very large problem.

It will, I hope, be a focus in the 2017 budget and we will see money for mental health, money for addiction counselling, and money targeted particularly to adolescents. They are very often not in the right place when they have addiction counselling with older people with addictions and a lifestyle that may scare a younger adolescent. We need to think about how we target our mental health and addiction counselling.

We need Bill C-37. I support the bill. This one amendment would ensure that we do the right thing to respond to the fentanyl crisis without doing the wrong thing for civil liberties.

Joël Lightbound  Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands for her support of Bill C-37 as well as for her tireless efforts and advocacy in responding to the opioid crisis in Canada.

She raises an interesting point. Our goal, of course, is to balance privacy with responding to the crisis we are seeing. I would like to simply highlight that the provision, as stated in Bill C-37, would allow customs agents to open only international mail. The reason for that disposition is that we know that only 2 mg of fentanyl can cause an overdose. This means that a 30-gram package could contain as many as 15,000 fatal doses, which is why we have included this in the bill. The goal is to strike a balance, but we think that a 30-gram package that can cause 15,000 overdoses is out of proportion. That is why the disposition is in the bill.

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, if I omitted to say that it is only international mail, I apologize. I do not write my remarks out. It is clearly intended to deal with letters that are mailed internationally. However, those letters mailed internationally could be from Canadian citizens. It is a question of getting the balance right.

I respect what my hon. colleague just said. We understand. Certainly, I am very concerned about the fentanyl crisis, but to me, it is not a step too far to say that if a suspicious piece of international mail has been identified, at that point get a warrant.

Dianne Lynn Watts South Surrey-White Rock, BC

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-37 is the government’s response to the opioid, fentanyl, and carfentanil crisis. I hear of young kids who have died in their 20s. They are 21, 23, 24, and 25 years old. Some are leaving behind small children. However, the bill is silent on the treatment aspect. These kids would not go to a consumption site. There has to be another strategy. I want to ask the member if she would not have liked to have seen the bill be more expansive and broader in strategy to deal with the issue of these young kids taking pills, not injecting.

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I understand that we need a broader strategy.

When we had the previous bill, Bill C-2 at the time, the Respect for Communities Act, so branded by the previous government, we needed to get rid of a lot of the provisions that were making it extremely difficult, close to impossible, to open a safe consumption site.

We may even have consensus on all sides of the House that safe consumption sites in Bill C-37 are not the whole answer to the fentanyl crisis. A lot more needs to be done, particularly for facilities designed, as the hon. member just said, for an adolescent who might not go to to a safe consumption site, and we are looking at better education.

I hope we are using the best diplomacy we have with the People’s Republic of China in asking it to do more to stop the flow of fentanyl coming into Canada.

There are many steps: going from the full range of mental health and addiction counselling, supports in communities, helping law enforcement, yes, with safe consumption sites being available, and other steps as needed. They do not all have to be in this piece of legislation. This piece of legislation is likely to pass more quickly by focusing on only one aspect of what I hope will be a much broader strategy.

Joël Lightbound Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House of Commons today to speak in support of Bill C-37, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other Acts. This legislation is long-awaited and evidence-based, and it can save lives. I wish to thank the Standing Committee on Health for its timely and helpful review of Bill C-37.

As everyone knows, our government is deeply concerned about Canada’s ongoing opioid crisis. Over the last year, we have seen an unprecedented number of deaths in this country. In British Columbia and Alberta, opioid-related overdoses are overtaking motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death. While some parts of the country have been more severely hit than others, no part of the country is immune. Sadly, many Canadians have lost friends or family members, or know someone who has.

The government is therefore committed to addressing this complex public health crisis, and problematic substance use more generally, through a comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate, and evidence-based approach.

That is why on December 12, 2016, the Minister of Health, with the support of the Minister of Public Safety and the Minister of Justice, announced the new Canadian drugs and substances strategy. This new strategy formalizes our government’s commitment to taking a health-focused approach to addressing problematic substance use by restoring harm reduction as a core pillar of Canada’s drug policy. It also aims to strengthen the evidence-based underpinning of Canada’s drug policy.

At the same time, the minister introduced a comprehensive bill in the House of Commons that would support the new strategy, Bill C-37, a bill that strives to address certain gaps and weaknesses in the existing legislation by better equipping health professionals and law enforcement with the tools they need to protect the public, protect public health, and maintain public safety. The provisions contained in Bill C-37 would help to address the ongoing opioid crisis, and for this reason I encourage all members of the House of Commons to support the bill’s quick passage.

Addiction is a complex issue. Not everyone will respond to treatment the same way, and not everyone is willing or able to enter treatment. Unfortunately, evidence demonstrates that individuals who are outside of treatment are at an increased risk for major health and social harms, including overdose and death. This is why the government recognizes that we must be pragmatic in our approach to problematic substance use.

As Canadian communities struggle to respond to the opioid crisis, it is essential that evidence-based harm reduction measures, including supervised consumption sites, be a part of that response. Concrete evidence demonstrates that, when properly established and maintained, these sites save lives and improve health.

However, in 2015, the previous government passed the Respect for Communities Act, which required applicants interested in establishing supervised consumption sites to address 26 criteria in their application before the minister of health could consider it.

On top of that, to renew an exemption for an existing site, applicants have to submit information to address the 26 criteria as well as information related to two additional criteria before an application can be considered.

As a result, this legislation is widely viewed by public health experts as a barrier to establishing new supervised consumption sites, which is unfortunate.

As I have already stated, the evidence shows that supervised consumption sites save lives. As we work to stem the crisis of opioid overdose deaths, facilitating the establishment of these sites in communities where they are wanted and needed is a priority.

That is why Bill C-37 proposes to relieve the administrative burden on communities seeking to establish a supervised consumption site, without compromising the health and safety of those operating the site, its clients, or the surrounding community.

Further, with respect to renewals, existing supervised consumption sites would no longer require a new application. Instead, under Bill C-37, a renewal would simply be requested by informing Health Canada of any changes to the information that was submitted as part of a site’s last application.

Last week, the Standing Committee on Health adopted Bill C-37 with one amendment to clarify the information requirement for an application for a supervised consumption site. This is an amendment that our government fully supports.

Now at report state there is a motion from the member for Oshawa to delete clause 42 of Bill C-37. This would remove from Bill C-37 all of the amendments designed to streamline the application process for a supervised consumption site. The government cannot support this motion.

Supervised consumption sites are a key element to responding to the opioid crisis, and our government has heard that the current legislative framework is a barrier to their successful implementation in communities that want and need them.

An important aspect of this crisis is the extraordinary potency of the drugs being consumed, often unintentionally. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, is one of particular concern. While it has legal pharmaceutical use for severe pain relief, it can be misused for its heroin-like effects. Fentanyl is often disguised as other opioids, such as oxycodone or heroin, or added to other drugs.

A pilot drug checking project at Insite, a supervised consumption site in Vancouver, found that 91% of drugs reported as heroin or containing heroin were also positive for fentanyl. Disguising fentanyl in other drugs leads to overdoses, as individuals are not aware of the potency of the substances they are using.

We know that pill presses and encapsulators, which can be used for legitimate purposes, are also being imported to manufacture illegal pills containing opioids. According to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, a single pill press can turn a kilogram of raw fentanyl worth a few thousand dollars into hundreds of thousands of pills worth millions of dollars on the black market

Currently, these devices can be legally imported into Canada by anyone, with no regulatory requirements. Under Bill C-37, every bill press and encapsulator imported into Canada would need to be registered with Health Canada.

The most illicit fentanyl is produced in other countries illegally and imported in small packages. Pure fentanyl is an extremely powerful opioid where even a few milligrams can cause a fatal overdose. A small package of pure fentanyl smuggled into Canada through international mail can contain the equivalent of thousands of fatal doses.

Currently, all mail entering Canada may be examined by an officer at the border prior to being allowed into the domestic postal stream, if the officer has reasonable grounds to do so. However, mail weighing 30 grams or less may only be opened if consent is obtained from the sender or the addressee. If no consent is given, suspicious mail is simply returned to the sender. It is believed that this exception is being exploited by drug smugglers and resulting in the proliferation of trafficking via international mail.

Bill C-37 would address this by enabling officers at the border to open all items in the international mail stream if they have reasonable grounds to be suspicious that the mail contains illicit goods.

Finally, we know that the opioid crisis has introduced very real workplace health and safety concerns for front-line staff, including border agents, law enforcement officers, and others who may be exposed to fentanyl and carfentanil during the course of their duties.

This concern is only made worse by the current rules related to the handling and disposition of seized controlled substances; precursors and other offence-related property are cumbersome and complex and include requirements for agencies to store materials until a court order can be obtained. This results in large quantities of controlled substances, potentially dangerous chemicals, and other offence-related property sitting in police evidence holdings for long periods, increasing the risk of exposure to these dangerous substances and increasing the risk of their being diverted to the illicit market.

Among the many provisions included in this bill to modernize the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to keep pace with changes in the licit and illicit drug market, there are provisions that would introduce a new expedited process for the disposal of seized controlled substances, precursors, and chemical offence-related property.

Since I have only a few seconds left, I will wrap up now.

In conclusion, I would say that Bill C-37 would address gaps and weaknesses with existing legislation in order to better respond to the opioid crisis. This bill is another example of our government’s commitment to establishing a comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate, and evidence-based approach to drug policy in order to reduce the harms currently being experienced by individuals and communities, caused by drugs.

I strongly, therefore, encourage all members of the House to support this bill, as amended by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health.