In The Lead Up to UNGASS, Canada is Charting a New Path

It feels like we can breathe again.

In mid-March, I attended the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, the annual drug policy meeting where delegations from over 50 countries and numerous Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) come to review progress being made towards reducing the harms from drugs globally. It’s a fractious affair with the majority of the countries still wedded to a war on drugs approach. Resistance to change is in the air and god forbid anyone raises the issue that there may be better ways to address drug related issues in their countries. But the list of countries calling for reform is growing, and in the longer term we think the status quo will give way to new approaches. The next three to five years are pivotal for reforming outdated global drug policies.

Much of the time at the meeting was focused on preparing for the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in New York – the most important global drug policy meeting at the UN since 1998. It provides an opportunity for countries to move in one of two different directions: either call for much needed change in the global approach to drugs or to keep their head firmly in the sand and deny that the whole UN drug control apparatus needs a thorough review. Thus far the negotiations have been tough and little progress has been made in moving countries resistant to reviewing the effectiveness of the drug treaties. Civil society organizations released a statement [link] on the first day of the meeting signed by 200 NGOs around the world calling for member states to speak out on the closed state of the negotiations.

The document agreed upon by the end of the CND meeting is a poor reflection of the many progressive and change oriented ideas that were put into the process from UN Member States, civil society and UN agencies.

Canada’s statement at the CND was one of the highlights of the week and literally had people in tears as the Canadian head of delegation made it clear that Canada was back as a progressive force. A huge relief for many attending.

(photo from the conference) (Caption – Canadian civil society contingent at the CND)

In years past, the government of Canada had been something of a pariah on the world stage, siding with countries such as Russia and blocking the addition of harm reduction in any UN wording. A year ago Canada was completely out of step with the rest of the world, (link) and lacked a clear vision on how to handle the so-called world drug problem.

This time things were different.

Before the conference, we worked with our National UNGASS Working Group to create a ten-point policy brief that we have given to federal government officials to consider for the meeting in New York next month. To our delight, the statement made by our government at the CND reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to harm reduction, legalization of cannabis, support for better access to essential medicines, a public health approach, new metrics with which to measure the success of drug strategies and the end of the death penalty for drug related offenses, many of the points we outlined in our policy brief.

The timing of this statement proves that we have a government that is not only listening, but also beginning to act.

Then two weeks ago, a number of civil society organizations met with Canada’s Minister of Health, Jane Philpott in Ottawa and presented her with a wide range of issues that need addressing. The meeting was a good beginning and we look forward to working with Minister Philpott as Canada considers developing a new national drug strategy that could, if the will is there, lead the world in applying evidence to the development of a national approach to drugs.

We also received a letter from the Minister inviting CDPC to be a part of the official delegation to the UNGASS meeting along with two other civil society representatives, Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) and the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police are the other two organizations on the delegation.

We are delighted that our call to further engage civil society organizations in the international delegation was taken up by the Minister and look forward to working with our delegation partners at the upcoming UNGASS meeting.

Last month we had more good news – Health Canada finally de-scheduled naloxone, making it easily available as a non-prescription drug (link). They also announced a four-year extension to the exemption for Insite to remain open, and recently Toronto Public Health announced that it will be applying for federal permits to open 3 supervised injection sites in the near future!

I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and it feels like I’ve returned to a whole different Canada.

These next weeks are going to be crucial for Canada’s drug policy. We still need to advocate for stronger legislation around responses to overdoses that have reached pandemic levels in our community. Please read our op-ed written with coalition member, Pivot Legal Society by clicking here on what the government can do right now to end this ongoing tragedy. Most overdoses are preventable with awareness and a quick response. (link)

So much has changed in what feels like so little time, but we must remember that true reform won’t happen until the war on drugs is over. This is just the beginning.

Thank you for all your support. We’ll be keeping you updated on the UNGASS activities in the days ahead.

Donald MacPherson

About Donald MacPherson

Donald MacPherson is the Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and one of Canada’s leading figures in drug policy. In 2000 he published Vancouver’s groundbreaking Four Pillars Drug Strategy that precipitated a broad public discussion on issues related to addiction.

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