NDP leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh said in a debate on Sunday that, as leader, he would call for the decriminalization of drugs in response to Canada's current overdose crisis.
"This does not sound to me like a criminal justice problem. That sounds to me like a social justice problem and a healthcare problem," Singh said. "I would call for the immediate decriminalization of all personal possession offences when it comes to drugs. Period," Singh said.
Singh's words come following Justin Trudeau's comments last week that dismissed the idea of decriminalizing drugs other than cannabis, which is set to be legalized by July 2018. Others participating in the NDP leadership debate Sunday did not show as much support for decriminalization of drug use in response to the opioid crisis.
"Jagmeet Singh showed the kind of political bravery urgently needed," Dr. Hakique Virani, an addiction and public health specialist in Edmonton, told VICE. "Until substance use is decriminalized, the barriers between substance users and life-saving interventions will remain far too high... If the policy environment doesn't change, all our other efforts will keep us treading water at best."
Canada's current overdose crisis is killing thousands across the country every year, with the infamously potent drug fentanyl causing much of the destruction. Death tolls in places such as British Columbia, where an official emergency was declared in 2016 due to overdose deaths, continue to rise. BC's minister of health and addictions, Judy Darcy, has urged Trudeau to reconsider a policy of drug decriminalization.
Bill Bogart, University of Windsor law professor and author of Off the Street: Legalizing Drugs, said that it is a big deal that a high-level politician such as Singh showed support of decriminalizing drugs other than cannabis. But, Bogart said, others in Trudeau's own caucus have as well, including Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who also advocates for legalization and regulation of drugs.
The biggest success of the Portugal model, from Bogart's perspective, is that people "aren't mangled by the criminal justice system." It also demonstrated a departure from criminalization of drugs can occur without an onslaught of negatives: "rate of harmful consumption did not go significantly up, kids' use of drugs did not go up significantly, Portugal was not turned into a country of drug tourism, and people came to realize that people who use drugs are people—they're not criminals," he said.
Bogart said, though, it's important to note that when Portugal entered into drug decriminalization, it upped social and public health support.
As it stands in Canada, one of the problems the opioid crisis has shown a spotlight on is the lack of accessible resources and support available for people who use drugs. A'lisa Ramsey, a 21-year-old in Calgary who used to be addicted to fentanyl and is now involved in activism around the opioid crisis, said that addressing the rehab system and lack of support for people recovering from addiction should be a priority.
"Yes, [decriminalization] is good for those people who aren't ready for help," Ramsey said. "For people like me who want to fully get their life back, when will we get free facilities that will actually help you be prepared to enter back into society?"
Ramsey got off of fentanyl by going "cold-turkey" about two years ago without medical support, which caused her to feel extremely ill and stay in bed for about a month. Since then, she said, she has dealt with a number of health problems and, though she is under the care of a physician, struggles in what she says is a system not set up to help people like her.
"Now, I struggle with my anxiety and depression—it just eats me sometimes," Ramsey said. "How do I ask for help now when it's two years down the road?"
For Ramsey, though she sees both pros and cons to decriminalizing drugs, more resources and support free of cost for people recovering from addiction stands precedent.
As it stands, with Canada's cannabis regulation system forthcoming in 2018, Bogart said it's unlikely we'll see Trudeau approach decriminalization and/or legalization and regulation of other drugs until the results of policy surrounding cannabis become evident.
"He isn't going to go there right now… We have to have a cumulation of a chorus of voices so that when Trudeau is ready to move, he's got people behind his back," Bogart said.
Meanwhile, Canadians will continue to die in an illicit drug market poisoned with fentanyl.
"I hope Canadians are more accepting than politicians give us credit for when it comes to smarter drug policy," Virani said. "But even if this is an unpopular decision politically, sometimes the right action in a public health emergency—which this is—is unpopular in the short term."
"Protecting human life should be the priority, though, and it was good to hear Jagmeet Singh stand up for that. I hope more leaders do."
The NDP will decide their new leader following a vote that starts on September 18. Singh, who recently had an internationally viral moment for shutting down a racist protester, is considered a frontrunner.