“It is time to truly end the failed war on drugs. This is a health issue and I call on all parliamentarians to do the right thing.
By Doug Johnson, filter
RCurrently, cities and provinces across Canada are pursuing piecemeal decriminalization. Recently, British Columbia and its largest city, Vancouver, sought an exemption from Health Canada allowing jurisdictions to decriminalize the possession of drugs, including cocaine, amphetamines and opioids. Late last year, the Toronto Board of Health also voted in favor of the exemption request.
However, this leaves large swathes of the country where people who use drugs will continue to be arrested and prosecuted for possession; according to Statistics Canada, in 2019 there were more than 30,000 cases of possession in the country of various drugs, including heroin, other opioids, methamphetamine and others. Experts add that the jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction approach will cause difficulties for people traveling from place to place.
Recently, the New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada, a social democratic party that finished fourth in the country in last year’s federal election, proposed a federal bill to decriminalize drug possession in national scale. The private member’s bill, Bill C-216, will be debated in the spring.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh publicly supported the motion. And according to Gord Johns, NDP MP for Courtenay—Alberni, BC, who introduced the private member’s bill, it has a real chance of becoming law.
“It’s time to really end the failed war on drugs,” said Johns Filtered. He hopes his fellow MPs from all political stripes will take action to improve the health of Canadians, rather than trying to garner votes. “It’s a health issue and I call on all parliamentarians to do the right thing.”
The bill, functionally, has three parts. The first is the simple decriminalization of drug possession. Johns said decades of criminalization and the rise of high-potency drugs tampering with supply — along with a lack of timely access to harm reduction and recovery services — are fueling overdose deaths. Between January 2016 and June 2021, there were 24,626 “apparent deaths related to opioid toxicity” in the country, according to Statistics Canada. Between April and June last year, there were 1,720, or 19 a day. “Decriminalization is a key part of a smart, effective, and scientifically proven strategy to address the overdose epidemic,” Johns said.
The bill would also see criminal records expunged for possession charges, removing barriers that hinder many people in employment, housing and other areas of life.
The third part is the National Substance Use Strategy Act. This would mandate the creation of a “national strategy to address the harms caused by problematic substance use by promoting a comprehensive public health approach,” the bill says. Its functions include creating low-barrier access to safe supply, reducing the stigma associated with substance use through various programs, and implementing prevention programs that address the factors – social and economic, among others – that lead to problematic drug use.
Experts in the field support the bill, but say there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. According to Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, decriminalization could make people who use drugs more comfortable accessing vital services, such as health care, and reduce arrests. He said Filtered that it is high time for the governing Liberal Party of Canada to move forward with decriminalization. About thirty countries have already taken such measures, with very varied models.
Brittany Graham, community organizer and acting executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), said Canada’s current approach to municipalities and provinces seeking Health Canada’s exemption doesn’t make sense. This leaves people who use drugs out of these still criminalized areas. And even within those jurisdictions, it would be difficult to navigate the different rules when traveling between, say, Toronto and Vancouver.
A national approach is fairer, said Graham Filtered. “It also makes things much simpler when there is the same rule across the board.”
The bill is also light on details, as legislation tends to be at this stage. In particular, MacPherson and Graham expressed concern about potential thresholds – the maximum amounts of drugs that would be considered “possession” under the law.
This issue is controversial among jurisdictions requesting exemptions, and a potential source of confusing differences. For example, even Vancouver and its province of British Columbia have come up with different limits that a person (aged 19+) could wear. This is often broken down by drug classification. For example, the British Columbia model allows a person to carry a total of 4.5 grams of drugs on their person, while the Vancouver model allows a person to carry a total of 3.5 grams, but with separate limits per substance, such as only 2 grams of opioids, or 3 grams of cocaine.
The bill does not explicitly say what a national threshold would be. But MacPherson and Graham agreed that higher would be better. According to Graham, most people who use drugs in Vancouver will often buy between 3 and 7 grams. However, this is in a city (specifically, the Downtown Eastside) where drugs are relatively accessible and most people don’t have to travel far to get them.
People who live in rural areas — or even urban neighborhoods that are less walkable and less accessible to public transportation — may need to travel to get supplies. Decriminalization must therefore follow people’s usage patterns, MacPherson said.
“Your shopping habits are different,” Graham said. “If you live near a farmers’ market, you probably buy [food] everyday. But if you live in the suburbs, you probably go to the grocery store once a week and buy really big. That’s something you could say for a lot of rural and remote areas of British Columbia and even more remote areas of Vancouver.
Some people may also want to make larger purchases if they find someone selling a particularly good deal, while others may simply want to limit the number of times they interact with people selling drugs. There is also an economic logic behind buying large quantities: buying in bulk is often more profitable.
“By having a smaller [threshold]you’re always going to punish people for their economic status, the places they live, the access to a safe supply that they have,” Graham said.
MacPherson also pointed out that people who use drugs sometimes sell small amounts to make ends meet, and that would constitute “trafficking” even if the current bill passes. While he thinks the bill could be the start of dismantling a “bad system”. And, he insisted that if passed, people who use drugs must be included in the process of working out the details. “We have to get it right,” he said.
Unlike safe supply programs, decriminalization also does not directly address the problem of dangerously counterfeit drugs, although removing the fear of arrest would promote access to drug checking options.
Johns acknowledged those concerns and said finding the right thresholds would be an important factor. He also noted that police chiefs across Canada have in the past supported decriminalization, although this is not universally the case; those in Alberta, for example, argued that the province was not yet ready for this. But he remains convinced that it is doable. “I don’t worry so much about the threshold piece. We can solve this problem,” he said.
It is difficult to say whether this bill will ever become law. On the one hand, private bills rarely do so, although it is more likely in the case of minority governments, such as Canada’s today. But in the country’s last election, every major political party at least tacitly acknowledged that prosecuting people for possession was not the right path.
Johns claimed that some other MPs from different parties – although he declined to say which ones – had privately backed his efforts. “We are hopeful,” he said.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow the filter on Facebook or Twitteror subscribe to its newsletter.
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