Photo via Flickr user Chris Yarzab
Minor progress was made in Canada yesterday with the proposal to introduce a "Good Samaritan" law that would give people immunity from possession charges when reporting overdoses.
Ron McKinnon, Liberal MP for Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam in British Columbia, put forward the bill in the wake of a rising number of fatal overdoses across Canada. A study released by the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council found that just 46 percent of respondents would call 911 during an overdose situation, with fear of prosecution being the most common factor cited by the rest of the respondents as a reason for not calling.
McKinnon said he was expecting the bill to have widespread support from his own party and the NDP, but he was less sure how Conservatives would react: "People who see it as a law and order issue might have problems with it. Those who think it's a health issue as I do, realize it's about saving lives."
However, surprisingly little noise has been made about this from politicians on the Canadian right so far—and with similar laws gaining cross-partisan support in several US states, it could be a sign that after years of opposition to harm-reduction policies, lawmakers in North America are beginning to see why they're so vital right now. Those who oppose these types of initiatives tend to believe they increase accessibility to drugs and put them in the hands of children. Some think all drug users should be punished—presumably by sending them to prison, where no one has ever been able to buy and/or use drugs—and that it's their fault for breaking the law in the first place. But while I fully support total decriminalization, such as that which has successfully slashed the number of overdoses in Portugal (and not to mention drastically cut the disproportionately high HIV-transmission rates for which decriminalization was initially brought in to tackle), I understand why many people oppose it, and I'm not here to argue this point.
This isn't about making access to drugs easier or encouraging people to use them—a Good Samaritan law affects only those for whom drugs are already a part of life. And frankly, it's long overdue. In treating overdoses, timing is crucial. The fear of prosecution could mean the difference between seeking help immediately when an overdose is suspected and waiting until it's too late. It's the same thing that prevents sex workers around the world reporting their attackers, believing that they themselves will be punished. It's heavy-handed policing compromising the safety of millions.
The Good Samaritan law isn't an entirely new idea for Canada: After a one-year trial period that began in 2003, the police in Vancouver adopted a policy of not responding to non-fatal overdose reports, instead dispatching only paramedics.
Call me an out-of-touch pinko, but I think stopping people from dying is good, and McKinnon's proposal highlights the need for drug policy dictated by what's actually best for the Canadian people rather than one formed through an ideological battle of left versus right. Not wanting to appear soft on drugs, the Harper administration repeatedly fought against harm reduction initiatives including safe-injection sites, but the Good Samaritan bill is an easy opportunity for the new Tories, under interim leader Rona Ambrose, to distinguish themselves from the old regime. After all, addiction does not discriminate. Addiction is bipartisan.
It's hard to say exactly how many Canadians die from overdoses each year due to the different ways in which provinces track such statistics, but the number is well into the thousands.
Hundreds of Canadians have died in recent years from fentanyl overdoses alone. In an age when medical science is advanced enough to reverse the deadly effects of drug overdoses, it's shameful that so many are still dying needlessly. Christine Padaric, whose 17-year-old son Austin died of a hydromorphone overdose in 2013, told the Toronto Star: "Had there been a [Good Samaritan] law, I think it would be reasonable to think that there might be more of a likelihood for people to call."
Canada's record with harm reduction policies hasn't been great historically, but we have a government in place that wants to reform Canada's drug laws, although the Liberals haven't indicated if they will back this private member's bill.
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