What do we mean when we talk about the drug problem in Canada – a society where a robust market in both legal and illegal substances exists, and where the use of a wide range of drugs has become common place?

It’s time to stop pretending.

After more than one hundred years of pursuing a policy of drug prohibition, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition contends that it is time to stop pretending that the “war on drugs” is working. It is time to stop pretending that a system currently focused on using criminal law to deal with certain drugs will now reverse course, and suddenly make our communities safer and healthier.

Canada still relies heavily on criminal law to deal with drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Over the past century, successive federal governments have expanded the number of prohibited substances, removed procedural protections to make it easier to convict individuals of drug offences, and introduced mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offences. Parliament has enacted these measures despite the steady growth of compelling evidence that the criminal law increases many of the harms experienced by people who use drugs, and fails to stop the supply or demand of drugs.

But change is happening all around us.

The movement for exploring viable alternatives to using the criminal law as a primary intervention in the area of problematic drug use is quickly gaining momentum. In April of 2016, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug issues will take place in New York. This will be the first UNGASS dealing with drug issues since 1998. This meeting is a critical opportunity to gain consensus that global drug policies should be based on scientific evidence, embrace principles of public health and respect the human rights of everyone.

Never before have so many governments voiced displeasure with the international drug control regime. Never before, to this degree, have citizens put drug law reform on the agenda and passed regulatory proposals via referenda or by popular campaigns. Never before have the health benefits of harm reduction approaches—which prevent overdose and transmission of diseases like HIV—been clearer. For the first time, there is significant dissent at the local, national, and international levels.  UNGASS 2016 is an unparalleled opportunity to put an end to the horrors of the drug war and instead prioritize health, human rights, and safety. Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Director, Global Drug Policy program at Open Society Foundations.

Significant reforms are emerging in many countries including Canada. The Canadian government has committed to legalizing and regulating cannabis for non-medical use. Uruguay and four American states have also introduced laws regulating the trade in cannabis. More than half of American states have laws permitting at least some level of access to medicinal cannabis, and Canada has a large medical cannabis program.

In 2001, Portugal removed criminal penalties for personal drug use (up to a ten-day supply) of any drug and shifted resources to a health-based approach to drugs. Evaluations of the Portuguese initiative have found a reduction in harms such as HIV transmission, fewer people dying as a result of drug overdose, and reduced rates drug use amongst young people. Twenty other countries have also implemented some form of decriminalization of drug possession.

Like Canada, other countries have introduced supervised consumption facilities as a key component of a comprehensive response to drugs. These include Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Luxembourg. These facilities serve as an entry point for access to other health and social services that can ultimately help people who use drugs move towards better health, and empower them to increase control over their lives.

Several countries, including Canada, have gone a step further and either offer, or have done trials of, heroin-assisted treatment. This involves providing injectable pharmaceutical heroin under medical supervision. Such measures have consistently shown positive results for participants in all the countries where trials have been initiated – including in Canada.

A number of European countries also provide drug-checking services, where people can have samples of drugs tested for purity and adulteration. This gives people better information about what they may decide to put into their bodies.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that governments are weighing the evidence, and are taking a public health and human rights approach to drugs seriously. In October of 2015, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime leaked a document that called for all UN Member States to consider decriminalizing drug use and drug possession as a “key element of the HIV response among people who use drugs”. Change is in the wind.

The measures described above all point to a shift away from criminal law and towards using pragmatic, health-based measures to reduce the potential harms of drugs to those who use them and to the communities around them. They embrace new approaches to providing health services to people who use drugs, a commitment to engaging marginalized populations and a spirit of innovation in introducing new regulatory options for drugs currently controlled by organized criminals and unregulated dealers.

In support of this global shift towards new approaches to drugs the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and its partners are initiating the project Transforming Canada’s Approach to Drugs: A National Conversation. The Conversation will explore alternative approaches to criminal law as the primary response to drugs and showcase innovations from Canada and around the world that provide a blueprint for change.

Now with the wind at our backs, we would like to invite Canadians to join us in calling on the federal government to make good on their commitment to pursue evidence-based drug policies that make the health and safety of Canadians their number one priority. The National Conversation will help us do that. Join us in making history.

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