Nathaniel Erskine-Smith is the Member of Parliament for Beaches—East York, and an outspoken member of the Liberal Party.
We can and should treat drug abuse as a health issue, and not as a crime.
Our Liberal government has committed to a sensible and evidence-based approach to drug policy. That’s what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about when he campaigned on legalizing recreational marijuana, and it’s what has fueled federal support for supervised injection clinics, as cities grapple with an overdose epidemic.
But that commitment to evidence demands that we go further.
If we follow a public health and harm reduction approach to its logical conclusion, we could save even more lives by regulating all drugs according to their respective harms. Pharmaceutical quality control, for example, could ensure Canadians do not unsuspectingly use drugs laced with deadly fentanyl.
In a step towards regulation, we should decriminalize all drug use and possession.
Or we can keep banging our head against the wall, and maintain the criminal prohibition against illicit drug use — Nixon’s “war on drugs” — which continues to be an abject failure.
That war creates a lucrative and violent black market, and it shifts resources that should be going to public health to law enforcement, instead. Those enforcement efforts only serve to divert problems to new geographic areas or to inadvertently promote the use of alternative drugs, and the use of the criminal justice system marginalizes those who are already often at society’s margins, diminishing the likelihood that they seek treatment.
It may not be an easy sell, but it’s the right answer.
The war has also failed to effectively curtail the supply or consumption of illicit drugs.
Fentanyl and illicit drug overdoses killed hundreds of Canadians in 2016. B.C. officials and medical experts have called it a public health emergency.
Preaching abstinence isn’t working. But there is evidence that decriminalization does.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized low-level possession and use of all drugs. Those caught with drugs are sent before dissuasion commissions, which include representatives from law, medicine, and social work. More than 80 percent of cases are dismissed without sanction, and the number of people arrested and sent to criminal courts declined by more than 60 percent. There’s been no major increase in drug use (the level of drug use is below the European average), adolescent and problematic drug use has decreased, and the number of deaths from drug overdoses has dropped significantly.
In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy called for an end to prohibition, stating that “government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.” That Commission included former presidents and prime ministers of Brazil, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, and Switzerland, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and former Supreme Court of Canada judge and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour.
Last year, our government began down the path of evidence-based drug policy.
First, in an effort to address the opioid crisis, Minister Philpott introduced Bill C-37, effectively repealing the previous government’s attack on evidence and supervised injection clinics. The move will save lives.
The minister also changed Health Canada rules to permit physicians to prescribe heroin to severe drug addicts, and restored harm reduction as a key pillar of Canada’s drug strategy, “ensuring that Canada’s drug policies are well balanced, appropriately health-focused and evidence-based.”
Second, the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation released its report, and the cannabis community exhaled in relief. The report provides sensible recommendations for regulating access to cannabis, restricting commercial advertising, and allowing for personal cultivation of four plants per household (though it misses recommending record suspensions for those with convictions for simple possession). In sum, a public health approach that also treats Canadians like the responsible adults we are.
All of this is a good beginning to a modern drug policy. Public health and harm reduction are front and centre, and we have put ourselves in a position to show the world a responsible way forward.
“I am proud to stand up for drug policy that is informed by solid scientific evidence and uses a lens of public health to maximize education and minimize harm,” Minister Philpott told the United Nations last year on April 20. “We know it is impossible to arrest our way out of this problem.”
So let’s continue down that path. It may not be an easy sell, but it’s the right answer.