Podcast: Peterborough MPP candidates on drug decriminalization and safe supply

We asked candidates if they support the strategies that the Peterborough Board of Health says would combat the drug poisoning crisis

Earlier this month, Peterborough’s board of health sent a letter calling for the provincial government to take more action to curb the harms of the opioid crisis. The letter includes a call for the province to support and advocate for the decriminalization of drugs at the federal level, to expand safe supply programs, and revise the requirements for safe drug consumption sites.

As the provincial election approaches, Peterborough Currents asked the four major party candidates running in Peterborough—Kawartha to share their positions on these policies. Three candidates agreed, and in this episode of our podcast series on the provincial election you’ll hear Liberal Party candidate Greg Dempsey, NDP candidate Jen Deck, and Green Party candidate Robert Gibson speak to these policies.

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Ayesha Barmania  0:03  

Hi, you’re listening to the Peterborough Currents podcast. My name is Ayesha Barmania, and I’m here solo today to set up some reporting that my colleague Will Pearson has done on the local race for MPP. This episode centers around the candidates’ positions on a few proposed solutions to the opioid crisis. As we’ve reported on here at Peterborough Currents, the opioid crisis is a complicated and multifaceted issue that is hitting the local community really hard. The latest development that we’ve reported on is a letter from Peterborough’s board of health that calls on the province to firstly expand programs that provide safe and uncontaminated drugs to people who use them (aka  ‘safe supply’ programs). And secondly, the letter called for the provincial government to advocate for decriminalizing illegal drugs for personal use.Because the provincial government plays such a big role in how we as a society respond to this health crisis we wanted to know what these candidates think about these potential policies.

So my colleague Will invited the four major party candidates running in Peterborough—Kawartha for interviews. He spoke with Liberal party candidate Greg Dempsey, NDP candidate Jen Deck, and Green Party candidate Robert Gibson on May 14 and 15. We invited incumbent MPP Dave Smith of the Progressive Conservative party to participate as well but he did not respond to our requests. So let’s get into what they had to say. You’ll hear both Will’s questions and the candidates’ answers.

Will Pearson  1:30  

Let’s talk about the drug poisoning crisis. Earlier this week, my colleague Brett reported on a series of recommendations that the local Board of Health in Peterborough endorsed as actions that the province should take in addressing this crisis. Those included things like the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, and drug possession, as well as scaling up access to safe supply and then reforming the province’s model of supervised consumption. For example, lifting the cap of supervised consumption sites, allowing inhalation at those sites and then funding more temporary sites. And I’m wondering if we could kind of just like go through those and talk about whether you support those or not. So let’s start with—

Jen Deck  2:14  

William, you basically answered the question for me. Yeah, because those are literally all the things that I was going to touch on. The fact is that drug addiction, drug poisoning, and substance abuse in general, typically it’s a poverty issue, it’s a mental health issue. We don’t address these, we can’t address these things by criminalizing them. We need to have supports in place so that people have some way, you know, if you’re poor, and you don’t have choices, you know, drug addiction is easy to fall into if you’re rich, that’s true, too. Drug addiction cuts across all strata of society and, and the supports that are needed, depending on the person are going to be really different. And again, that comes back to why the NDP is trying to tackle all of these societal issues in many, many different ways. Because the fit for one person is not going to be the fit for somebody else.

Will Pearson  3:19  

So on decriminalization, some jurisdictions in Canada, including, say British Columbia have already requested to the federal government that their jurisdiction be exempted from the drug laws that criminalize drug use. Would the NDP make a similar request to the federal government? 

Jen Deck 3:35

We are doing that, yes. 

Will Pearson  3:38

And would the NDP support scaling up safe supply so that everyone has access?

Jen Deck  3:42  

All of the things you said, yes. We want to invest in addiction rehabilitation, we want to invest in detox centers, in harm reduction strategies, we want to remove the cap on supervised consumption sites, we want to expedite approvals for supervised consumption sites in the north, and work to ensure still safer alternatives to the current toxic and deadly supply of drugs on the street. And we want to reduce the stigma of drug addiction and decriminalize personal use, so that people are not afraid to get the medical help that they need. And, and you know, that’s really going to, again, addiction crosses all demographic lines, and the reasons that one person might not want to seek medical attention because of the stigma are going to be really different than why somebody else is maybe some, you know, lots of people don’t even have family doctors to speak about their addictions. And some would face you know, losing their jobs or so. Yeah, so we absolutely all the things you said the NDP is gunning for– oh, what a terrible turn of phrase. I apologize.

Will Pearson  5:01  

Are you supportive of the decriminalization of the personal use and possession of drugs?

Greg Dempsey  5:06  

Yeah. So first off, I want to say that I’m so grateful to Dr. Piggott and everybody who works at Peterborough health. I think they’re doing a great job. I am not a health expert. But something that I am good at doing is listening to smart people and taking their recommendations. And so I think anytime that Dr. Piggott has a serious, well-thought-out recommendation for our community and for the Ministry of Health, I think we need to take it seriously. So I am–on your very first question–I am open to considering the decriminalization of drugs. I think we need to look at the data, we need to– there are other countries like Portugal and others that have successfully implemented measures like these. I think we need to look at that data and consider whether that is something that could work in our province. But I can tell you that it’s something that I’m open to based on the recommendations of smart people like Dr. Piggott, and others who are deeply invested in these issues.

Will Pearson  6:03  

So on to the safe supply question. Some jurisdictions in Canada have already requested exemptions – oh no that’s decriminalization – so some jurisdictions have already requested exemptions to federal drug laws, like British Columbia, is one of them. Does the Liberal government commit to making that kind of a request to the federal government as soon as possible after it’s elected?

Greg Dempsey  6:28  

Yeah, so Will, I’m not going to make any commitments about what our party is going to do. But I can tell you that we are the party that is going to follow the science, follow the science on drug policy, follow the science on COVID measures. That’s where we need to be, we need to be listening to the people in our community who know these issues the best for sure. I am really lucky that I have spent some time abroad. I lived in the Netherlands for a year, which has very different safe supply laws. There were significant advantages to having those laws in place, including a significant decrease in drug poisonings. As I said, about decriminalization, I think we should be open to all potential solutions that are going to save lives. And we see that dozens and dozens of people are dying in our community, every single month. This is a crisis that requires all creative, different solutions to what we’re doing now. Because clearly what we’re doing now is not working. And so yes, I would say I am open to that suggestion.

Will Pearson  7:30  

Cool. Maybe we can move quickly to the next ones, because you might have a similar answer. Is that kind of what you say about safe supply? Open to considering it based on the recommendations of experts in the community?

Greg Dempsey  7:40  

Yeah, I would say I’m open to that as well. And I think one other thing that I want to say which I talked about it the debate on Tuesday, which is really, really important is that we also need a government that’s going to be trying to implement these solutions when we find them. And so advocates and others in our downtown who have been working on the consumption and treatment site have had to wait more than two years for that funding. And I said it before I’ll say it again, it required Dr. Piggott to essentially go to city and county council begging for the money for the province to come through. That’s not good enough. We deserve a government that when the city and the advocates come together to recommend a solution, whether it be any of the solutions that you’ve talked about today, that we have an MPP that’s going to fight for that funding and make that happen as quickly as possible.

Will Pearson  8:40  

So did I hear you right that the Green Party would move to decriminalize the use and possession of drugs?

Robert Gibson  8:48  

Yes. Because drug use is a health issue. And not– it shouldn’t be a justice issue. And I was talking with Fourcast and they mentioned how housing has to be part of the solution. And I mentioned supportive housing being made available. And then there has to be peer-to-peer supports, community support and I know that you mentioned other items.

Will Pearson  9:52  

Yeah, so would the Green Party scale up safe supply?

Robert Gibson  9:57  

I believe so. Yes. I believe they would. I would support that as MPP.

Will Pearson  10:11  

And then the last recommendation that I was going to talk about was around supervised consumption in the province. Are there any changes to supervised consumption that the Green Party recommends?

Robert Gibson  10:23  

Yes. So yeah, it is problematic– the current slow pace of supervised consumption. We would make it easier for that to occur and have a combination of sanctioned supervised consumption, and unsanctioned services. So that different needs are met by the government organized site and the community. And hiring, not hiring– repealing Bill 124 would also help in attracting more health care professionals into the field so that they have better pay. And so we need more health care professionals in the community and in the hospitals, as well.

Ayesha Barmania  12:00  

Okay. Those were candidates Greg Dempsey of the Liberal Party, Jen Deck of the NDP and Robert Gibson of the Green Party interviewed by my colleague Will Pearson. Thanks for listening to today’s episode. You can find the rest of our coverage of the provincial election on our website. Big thanks to Will Pearson for bringing us these interviews, and thanks so much to the candidates for their time. Big big thanks to Erika Nininger who provided the music in this episode. You can check her out on Bandcamp. 

And one last thing before I let you go, Peterborough Currents is currently fundraising to sustain our operations over the summer. We’re at a tricky point in our business growth where our start-up grants have run out and we’re facing scaling back our operations so we don’t completely run out of money in the next couple of months. Our goal is to reach 80 new donors by the summertime, and we’re actually really really close. If you like what we do, help keep us going. Head to peterboroughcurrents.ca/supportus to donate. And thanks so much to everyone who has already. The show of support has been like really overwhelming.

Anyway, that’s all for now.  I’m Ayesha Barmania. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you more soon. Bye.

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