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Overdue Federal Law to Help Combat Overdoses from Worsening Opioid Crisis

Introduction

Canada is in the midst of a worsening opioid crisis. This is evidenced by the joint statement released in the fall by the Federal Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, and her provincial counterpart Eric Hoskins.[1] Despite the strong remarks late last year, from the country’s health ministers, labelling the deteriorating situation as a crisis, very little has been done at the federal level to curb the increasing rates of opioid related overdoses and resultant deaths in Canada. Many of the solutions being brought forward to combat the worsening predicament have come from the grassroots and not for profit sectors, as well as from medical practitioners and their associated organizations.

 

However, the coming into force of the Bill C-224, known simply as the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, signifies a positive step being taken by the federal government to help combat the worsening epidemic.[2] The passing of such legislation can be seen as a pivotal acknowledgement of the severity of the crisis. It represents the federal government taking a formal step towards creating harm reduction policies to manage not the crisis but the deaths and illnesses it is creating.

The bill, tabled by Ron Mckinnon, the Liberal MP from Port Coquitlam, BC, received support that transcended the political lines that often divide the House of Commons. C-224 was a private members bill first introduced in February of 2016. It passed through the house in early November of 2016 and received it’s royal assent on May 4th, 2017 with very little opposition.

Why did a private members bill receive such unanimous support and move so swiftly through the legislative process?  As Eric Weir, a member of the NDP and MP for Regina-Lewvan, commented, “It is a simple, common-sense, proven policy that will save lives.”[3]  The next portion of this article will explore exactly what Mr. Weir was suggesting when he made this comment in the House of Commons, as well as how this new legislative tool can help Canada to combat the opioid crisis.

What Does The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act Do?

The Act amends the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) in order to offer some protection to those who offer assistance to someone suffering from an overdose. It is intended to enhance the harm reduction policies being developed under the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy and the sentiments of the Joint Statement of Action.

Previously, Under Section 4(1) of the CDSA, even if they were assisting a victim of an overdose, a person could be charged for being in possession of a narcotic. The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, it is hoped, will remove the threat of criminal prosecution for those who overdose and for those who witness overdoses. Following its passing, possession, joint possession, and breaches of pre-trial release, probation or parole relating to possession during an overdose will no longer be criminal.  However, no protection will be offered to those who are involved in more serious crimes, those who have outstanding warrants, and those in possession who did not contact the authorities because they felt that a reasonable person would not believe the situation required medical attention. The Act applies to both those who are witnessing an overdose and to those who are experiencing one.

Section 4 of the CDSA is amended to include Section 4.1 (1), which provides a definition for the term “Overdose”, “For the purposes of this section, overdose means a physiological event induced by the introduction of a controlled substance into the body of a person that results in a life-threatening situation and that a reasonable person would believe requires emergency medical or law enforcement assistance.”[4]  The new Section 4.1 (2) decriminalise possession for those who contact authorities during a situation that would fall under the definition of “Overdose” in S 4.1 (1), “No one who seeks emergency medical or law enforcement assistance because that person, or another person, is suffering from an overdose is to be charged or convicted under subsection 4(1) if the evidence in support of that offence was obtained or discovered as a result of that person having sought assistance or having remained at the scene.”[5] In what appears to be an attempt to assure those who are around persons suffering from an overdose that they will be free from prosecution, subsection 4.1(3) further clarifies that the prohibition against prosecution applies to anyone, including the victim, who is at the scene when first responders arrive.[6]

The moratorium on punishment for those who are on conditions or judicial interim release, if they are breaching but also assisting someone overdosing or overdosing themselves, is dealt with specifically by s 4.1(4) and (5).[7]

The legislation is short and succinct. It, with precision, removes the risk to those who would assist in remedying an overdose but for the risk of prosecution under the CDSA. Legally, now, if you are overdosing or you witness an overdose and you call 911, if you are in possession of a controlled substance or you are breaching your conditions or release order you will not be charged with a criminal offence.

How Does The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act Help Resolve the Epidemic?

In reality, creating a moratorium on punishing those who overdose or assist a person overdosing will do very little to stop the opioid epidemic. As is supported by a recent article in the RCMP Gazette, it is expected that the opioid crisis, in this country and abroad, will only get worse before it gets better. Authorities are struggling to keep up with the new methods of delivery for more potent opioids making their way into Canada.[8]

What the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act represents is an acknowledgement, by the federal government, of the out of control state of opioid abuse in this country. An acknowledgement that we are in the middle of a crisis and we need to save lives on the ground now. By altering the CDSA, the hope is to remove fears that persons will not assist in an overdose situationvbecause of potential police involvement.

As Mr. Weir remarked in the House of Commons:

it is clear that in the face of such a complex crisis, many things need to be done, and done quickly. Bill C-224 is one essential step, and we must take it without delay. One study cited by the Pivot Legal Society suggested that most people who witness an overdose do not call 911. Fear of arrest for drug possession is one barrier among many, but it is one that we have the power to lift.[9]

The federal government and their provincial counterpoints were not prepared for the opioid crisis consuming the nation. There are still many more steps to be taken, at all levels of government, before this situation is quelled. However, while experts and politicians debate what should and can be done, the reality is that people are and will continue to overdose and die from abusing legally and illegally sourced opiates. This is simply a sad reality of our current national predicament.

The passing of this legislation marks the very least that this country can do to aid those most acutely affected by this epidemic: the drug users and their loved ones. Since, currently, we are powerless to stop the illegal creation or trade of the illicit opioids that are ruining and taking these people’s lives, the least we can do is protect from punishment those who are brave enough to aid those who are falling ill and dying. Thankfully, rather unequivocally, by protecting responders, the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act does just that.

[1] Federal Ministry of Health and Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, Joint Statement of Action, “Joint Statement of Action to Address the Opioid Crisis” ( 19 November 2016), online: Government of Canada <https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-abuse/opioid-conference/joint-statement-action-address-opioid-crisis.html>.

[2]Bill C-224, Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act: An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (assistance — drug overdose), 1st Sess, 42nd Parl, 2017, (Royal Assent 4 May 2017).

[3] Canada, House of Commons Debates, 42nd Parl, 1st Sess, No 65 (3 June 2016) at 1345 (Erin Weir).

[4]An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (assistance — drug overdose), SC 2017 c 4 (1st Sess), s 4.1(1).

[5] Ibid at s 4.1(2).

[6] Ibid at s 4.1(3).

[7] Ibid at ss 4.1(4)-(5).

[8] Eric Stewart, “Fentanyl”, RCMP Gazette 79:1 ( 13 January 2017).  

[9] Supra note 3.