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Cumberland’s council backs Johns’ private member’s bill on opioids

Cumberland’s council is standing behind their MP’s private member’s bill calling for a new approach away for narcotics.

They were responding to a request from Courtenay Alberni MP Gord Johns for Bill C-216, which he introduced as a response to drug-related deaths and the illicit toxic drug supply. His legislation calls for a move away from criminalization toward measures such as harm reduction.

He is also looking for support from local governments, which is why council had the item on the agenda.

“As most people know, we have two public health emergencies right now,” Coun. Jesse Ketler said, referring to COVID-19 and drug-related deaths.

Ketler talked about what has happened since the province declared the opioid epidemic a public health crisis in 2016.

“It’s only getting worse,” she said, adding, “We lost the ‘War on Drugs,’ and we need to stop punishing people and actually start helping people.”

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In January, B.C. Emergency Health Services released data from the last six years that show the extent of the problem for many communities.

For Cumberland, the number of overdose-related calls to paramedics has come in between eight and 13 a year. Members of council have spoken previously about how they have been affected personally.

It is an issue in other Comox Valley communities too. Comox’s calls have ranged between 13 in 2016 and 44 in 2018. Last year, it had 36 calls for help. Courtenay had 92 calls six years ago. In the five years that followed, the numbers range from 138 to 206, but in 2021, calls increased to 467, similar to Island communities such as Campbell River and Duncan, which have also faced large jumps over the last year or two.

In communities province-wide, the number of calls has gone up each year since 2016, when it was just below 20,000 to last year’s total of 35,525.

Members of Cumberland’s council were quick to support Johns’ move to re-frame the crisis as a health issue and not a criminal one. They passed a motion to write a letter to Minister of Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to show support for Bill C-216 as well as encourage other local governments to take the same action.

“If passed, it would be the most progressive piece of legislation in Canadian history,” Ketler said.

In a statement to the Record, Johns described the need for “commonsense” federal reforms and touched on a number of approaches such as decriminalizing personal possession, expunging conviction records, ensuring low-barrier access to a safer supply and expanding access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services.

“Decades of criminalization, a toxic illicit street supply and a lack of timely access to these services has caused this escalating epidemic,” he said. “It is time to treat substance use and addiction as the health issues they truly are, and to address stigma and trauma.”

He also said the support from local governments like Cumberland and the Comox Valley Regional District reflect the hard work and courage from these local officials and community teams on the issue.

(This story has been edited to fix a typo.)

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Mike Chouinard

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