On Thursday, May 23, CDPC released the first- ever comprehensive report by a civil society organization on the failures of Canada’s approach to drug policy. The report calls for the replacement of the current national anti-drug strategy with one focused on health and human rights; the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use; the creation of a regulatory system for adult cannabis use, increased efforts to eliminate stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs, the scale up of comprehensive health and social services, including housing and treatment services that engage people with drug problems; more robust educational programs about safer drug use, programs for distributing new supplies for injection and crack cocaine use, safer consumption services, opioid substitution therapies and heroin-assisted treatment and the collection and monitoring of data on drug use and its effects in Canada.
All of these measures are designed to reduce harm from substance use in Canada and assist people who develop problems with drugs to get the help they need.
Canadian media responded quickly to our recommendation to decriminalize personal possession of drugs with questions about how this approach would increase the safety and health of Canadians, especially when it comes to so-called “hard” drugs like heroin and cocaine. Canada’s Conservative government also reacted swiftly to media coverage of our report and publicly dismissed our proposal to decriminalize the personal use of all other drugs, while failing to adequately justify their current approach, which has shifted focus from a public health approach to drugs back to one that relies heavily on the criminal justice system.
Our recommendations were shaped by the stories Canadians told us as we prepared this report. The CDPC talked to people across the country – service providers, family members, and people who use drugs. Story after story, along with research evidence, confirmed that the harms of drug use are exacerbated by Canada’s current drug policies. Canada still puts the majority of its resources behind conventional approaches to drug control like policing, courts, and prisons – approaches that have failed to meet their objectives – public health and public safety. In fact, Canada’s national drug policy increases the harms of substance use by driving it into the shadows and away from life-saving services. And like the United States, Canada’s drug laws disproportionally target already marginalized groups.
Our report rues that fact that Canada used to be a leader when it came to progressive drug policy. Before the current federal government took power, harm reduction was a key pillar of the federal drug strategy, and the federal government supported innovative approaches like supervised injection sites, heroin assisted treatment and the expansion of needle exchange programs as well as focusing on prevention through social development rather than “Just Say No to Drugs” style of programs that have been shown not to work. Since 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach is best represented by the National Anti-Drug Strategy; a yet to be proven effort that reasserts the use of criminal law to suppress the trade and use of illegal substances.
Our report documents how this approach, encapsulated by last year’s enactment of minimum sentencing provisions for some drug crimes, neither supports health or public safety but will lead to increasingly overcrowded and costly prisons. But the most stunning display of unimaginative thinking when it comes to solving current drug problems is the refusal by our government to even talk about the failures of the overarching policy framework and the criminalization of drugs and prohibition – policies that not only create much of the drug crime in Canada, but also constrain our ability to address many drug-related health harms. In fact, the Canadian government was one of the few that voted against the 2012 motion at the UN put forward by the President of Mexico to have a United Nations General Assembly Special Sesssion on global drug policy in 2016.
Even where provincial level policies attempt to make “every door the right door” people still fall between the cracks, or wait intolerably long for drug treatment services because private treatment is prohibitively expensive and the publicly funded workforce whose role it is to provide these services is small.
In many places in Canada, the harms associated with drug use continue unabated because we can’t commit fully to services like needle exchanges and supervised injection sites that help reduce these harms. The federal government remains openly hostile to evidence-based measures like key harm reduction services. As a result, rates of HIV and HCV associated with drug use remain unacceptably high, particularly among some groups of Canadians. In 2010, 30.4% of new infections in women versus 13.5 % of new cases in men were attributed to injection drug use. Cases of HIV attributed to injecting drug use among First Nations, Métis and Inuit persons have gone up to more than 50% in the period spanning 2001 to 2008. This is a tragedy and a national disgrace that can be prevented.
Canada must modernize its approach to drugs. Globally, the current system of drug control is under considerable pressure to change and some jurisdictions have begun to chart their own paths when it comes to drug control, including experimenting with decriminalization and legal regulation of cannabis while over 70 countries embrace harm reduction in their drug strategy policy frameworks. The CDPC’s report recommends that it’s time to follow suit and modernise Canada’s legislative, policy and regulatory frameworks that address psychoactive substances.