A group of drug users and drug policy reform advocates are suing the Canadian government because they say the continued prohibition of drugs is unconstitutional.
The Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, a non-profit organization, filed a statement of claim Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court against the Attorney General of Canada arguing that the government is responsible for overdose deaths because it is forcing drug users to buy from a toxic drug supply.
The statement of claim aims to strike down sections of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the federal framework for prosecuting drug offences, in light of the thousands of Canadians dying from overdoses each year. According to the Canadian government, more than 22,000 people have died of an overdose since 2016.
VICE World News reached out to the Department of Justice for comment and was redirected to Health Canada. We will update the story with a response if we hear back.
The statement of claim notes the majority of the overdose deaths have been caused by fentanyl, which has infiltrated the drug supply in Canada.
“Canada’s longstanding policy of criminalizing illicit drugs, the purpose of which is to prevent harm, is now having the opposite effect. Criminalizing the use of illicit drugs, and, correspondingly, making the illicit market the only possible source of most drugs, is now killing thousands of Canadians each year,” the document says.
“None of the actors in this illicit supply chain are made accountable by a sufficient regulatory or licensing regime, because such a decriminalized, legalized, and regulated regime does not exist when illicit drugs remain controlled through criminal penalties.”
The statement of claim alleges drug prohibition is a violation of the Charter rights of people who use drugs, including the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person; rights against cruel and unusual punishment; and equality rights.
The lawsuit also says drug dependence is a medical condition “that attracts limited or no moral blameworthiness” but that prohibition has forced people who use drugs to “use drugs in secret, in circumstances and environments that kill or seriously injure them.”
As a remedy, the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs says it wants to strike down parts of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, including possession offences. The group also wants the government to strike down some trafficking offences, such as trafficking for subsistence and to support personal drug use and “trafficking to supply a guaranteed safe supply to vulnerable (people who use drugs).”
Hawkfeather Peterson, one of the plaintiffs, told VICE World News the lawsuit is an attempt to force action.
“Drug users now know that no one is coming to rescue us. We need to step up and force the matter,” Peterson said.
“This is really about our fundamental human rights. We deserve dignity and freedoms but above all else we deserve safety. Drug users have been left to die. And we are hopeful that this action will create real change to protect our already vulnerable population.”
The lawsuit comes in the midst of a federal election, in which only the NDP has committed to “end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction.”
The Liberals have said they will repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and will give police and Crown attorneys discretion to not charge people with drug possession and instead direct them into drug treatment court or addictions services.
The Conservatives have said their plan will help people “lead a drug-free life” and that law enforcement should focus on drug traffickers.
On Tuesday, B.C. announced more than 1,000 people died of a drug overdose in the first half of 2021, putting it on track to be another record year for fatal overdoses in the province, which is the epicentre of Canada’s drug poisoning crisis.
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