Does Canada have a “drug problem”?

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?

What role does drug policy and other social and economic policies play in creating Canada’s ‘drug problem’?  And what can be done to generate healthier and more meaningful ways to help citizens negotiate the complex terrain of substance use in our society?

In 2009, Canadians used a wide range of substances. These included alcohol (77%), tobacco (17%), cannabis (25%) among youth aged 15 to 24 and (10%) among all adults, psychoactive pharmaceuticals (26%), cocaine or crack (1.2%), ecstacy (0.9%), LSD (0.7%), speed (0.4%), methamphetamine (0.1%).  Most Canadians will navigate this array of substances without encountering serious problems. But for others, there will be very real and devastating consequences on their lives and those around them.

Substance use has risks and benefits

Canada has seen thousands die from drug-related overdoses, contract HIV and hepatitis C from injection drug use, and struggle to access drug treatment, harm reduction and primary care services. Many more have been arrested for possession of drugs or trafficking illegal substances resulting in lifelong criminal records. Others have lost it all – their housing, friends, family, jobs and sense of hope in their struggle to overcome a dependency on alcohol or other drugs.

The majority of Canadians will not develop problems with substance use. They may or may not use drugs, and if they do, it could be for pleasure, to relieve physical or psychological pain, or as part of social, cultural or religious settings.

When we think of the ‘drug problem’, is the problem actually about the substances themselves, or is the use and impact of these drugs directly linked to deeper challenges in our society?  Issues like poverty, economic and financial stresses, abuse, mental illness, lack of belonging and meaning in life, and physical, mental or spiritual pain?  Which policies are working to prevent and reduce harm and which policies actually contribute to the harms related to the drug trade and substance use in Canada?

Learning together to create a new drug policy for Canada.

How can we create drug policy and thoughtful social and economic policy that help shape healthier attitudes, reduce harm in our communities, and decrease the levels of violence, organized crime and corruption within our public institutions?  How can we best address the commercialization of legal substances as well as the robust criminal markets that thrive on the sale of illegal drugs? These are some of the questions that CDPC is committed to exploring as we engage Canadians from all sectors. We will consider the effectiveness and the impact of policies currently in place that aim to prevent and reduce harms associated with alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, regulatory policies and the commerce related to legal and illegal drugs in society.  We hope you will join us.

“We need to recognize that it’s not deviant or pathological for humans to desire to alter their consciousness with psychoactive substances. They’ve been doing it since pre-history… and it can be in a religious context, it can be in a social context, or it can be in the context of symptom management.”

-   Perry Kendall, Provincial Health Officer, British Columbia

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Sources: Community Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, 2010. Health Canada

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