Canada charts a new path on drug policy

Scott Bernstein is the global drug policy program officer at the New York-based Open Society Foundations. He’s also the former health and drug policy campaigner for Pivot Legal Society, where he initiated legal challenges to anti-harm reduction bylaws and restrictions to opioid substitution treatments.

Last week Scott attended the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016), where Canada presented a new vision for drug policy.

“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.” 

– Jane Philpott, Minister of Health

Sitting in the gallery of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York surrounded by non-governmental organizations from around the globe, I listened proudly as Minister Philpott said those words to representatives from nations of the world at UNGASS last week.

Her statement supported harm reduction, proportional responses to drug offenses, and creation of a regulated market for cannabis in 2017. Canada’s new position around Vancouver’s Insite was clear and was finally in line with the monumental evidence supporting these facilities: supervised consumption sites work; people can access the care they need; Insite has saved lives.

As one of the lawyers working on the Insite case years ago, and advocating for human rights and access to harm reduction services for Pivot clients, I reflected on the dramatic change in messaging from the last decade.

For many years, the Conservative government not only declared to the world opposition to harm reduction, but fought a five-year legal battle to shut down Insite that put the lives of hundreds of individuals who rely on the service every day at risk and cost taxpayers millions in legal expenses. That fight ended poorly for the government when the Supreme Court of Canada declared in late 2011 that Insite saved lives and should remain open, but breathed new life into the Conservative’s war against evidence-based interventions to minimize the harms of drug use.

Two years after the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision, the Harper government introduced new legislation that created 26 new hurdles that proponents of new consumption sites must jump before the federal government could even consider whether to allow this life-saving service to open. In March 2015, Bill C-2, the so-called Respect for Communities Act, became – and remains – the law of the land in Canada.

Minister Philpott’s assertive and welcome statement to the UN began with a note of poignancy. Reflecting on a meeting a few weeks earlier, she noted how hearing from a mother who had lost her daughter to overdose had deeply affected her and helped to ground Canada’s new policy issues in a humanity that we all can understand. As Minister Philpott noted, we must do better.

Even with a supportive government now in place, we can never bring back those whose lives were tragically lost or who suffered the harms of a policy based in an ideology that stigmatizes people who use drugs and stands in the way of evidence-based interventions.

There is a new urgency to make up for lost time and to scale up consumption sites and overdose prevention across the country. We also need to begin implementing programs that provide prescription opioids to patients who need such interventions and explore new and better ways to reduce the personal and societal harms of drug use and prohibitionist drug policies. The Trudeau government must commit to repeal Bill C-2, roll back mandatory minimum sentences, and implement harm reduction services widely across the country. To do any less would not live up to the expectations created within Canada and the international community for change.

Canada has stood in the UN as an international leader and must now put actions behind the words.

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