While federal election candidates in the Sault Ste. Marie riding have differing approaches to addressing mental health and addictions issues locally, there’s one thing they all seemingly agree upon: people who suffer from substance use disorders should not be treated as criminals.
That was the message delivered to voters in Sault Ste. Marie during a virtual candidate forum hosted by Citizens Helping Addicts and Alcoholics Get Treatment (CHAAT) Tuesday night. Candidates fielded five questions developed by CHAAT members and members of the public.
Candidates asked about legislation reform
When asked if there is any existing federal legislation that requires reform to address substance use disorders, all candidates agreed Canada cannot prosecute its way out of addictions issues.
Liberal incumbent Terry Sheehan said there’s a need to tear down walls and jurisdictions in order to address substance-use disorders.
Sheehan pointed to the Canadian Mental Health and Addiction harm reduction hub and recovery project at the former site of Sacred Heart School on Wellington Street East, which has received $663,342 in federal funding over a three-and-a-half year period.
“Right now they’re hiring some peer support helpers, people that are well on the road to recovery, to work with people to get the necessary referrals,” he said.
People’s Party of Canada (PPC) candidate Kasper Makowski says there’s a need to provide people convicted of drug-related offences the ability to go through the justice system, make amends and not carry the stigma of a criminal record that would prevent them from reintegrating with society and finding work.
“I’d really like to see a little more leeway for offenders that make mistakes,” he said.
Conservative Party of Canada candidate Sonny Spina said we need to stop looking at people with addictions as criminals, but stem the flow of narcotics and illicit materials coming into our communities.
He went to say that recovery must be included as a sentencing option for people with addictions who have committed a criminal offence.
“I suppose I’m a little bit surprised, but I agree with both Kasper and Sonny that we definitely need to focus on decriminalization,” said New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Marie Morin-Strom. “The NDP platform includes decriminalization of substances, illicit substances, so that people who suffer from substance use disorders are not criminals.”
Morin-Strom said the criminal aspect of addictions would instead focus on trafficking and ensuring that people living with substance use disorders have access to supports and on-demand treatment.
Mandatory treatment as an alternative to incarceration?
Candidates were then asked by the moderator if they support mandatory treatment for those suffering from substance use disorder as an alternative to incarceration.
Makowski didn’t say whether or not he supported mandatory treatment as an alternative to incarceration. The PPC candidate said he supports treatment, but not incarceration for those suffering from addiction.
Spina said treatment options and support systems are needed for those incarcerated, but treatment shouldn’t be mandatory.
“If someone struggles with addictions, you can’t simply force them to go into treatment - they have to be ready, willing and able to do it themselves,” said Spina.
Morin-Strom said studies have pointed to forced treatment being counterproductive and leading to relapse later on. The NDP candidate said there’s a need for diversion programs or quality treatment on demand for people incarcerated for drug-related offences.
“There are some studies out there that say it [mandatory treatment] can be counterproductive,” she said.
Sheehan said support for low-risk and first-time offenders can be achieved by reforming the criminal code. “It’s important to get to them right away. Not to exacerbate it, but to get to it at that particular time,” he said.
Sheehan said police and crown prosecutors need to consider diverting individuals away from the criminal justice system.
“And by diverting them, it highlights and emphasizes what I said at the beginning - we need more treatment beds,” Sheehan said.
Tuesday's forum also featured questions surrounding social consequences of addiction and cooperation between federal, provincial and municipal levels of government in order to address the opioid crisis and addictions issues locally.
The CHAAT candidates forum on addictions can be viewed in its entirety on SooToday.