Back in 2005, it was a dark time for drug policy in Canada. A Conservative government under Stephen Harper was openly hostile towards harm reduction efforts and fought the provision of life-saving services at Insite, North America’s first supervised consumption site, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. They would eventually lose.
In 2015, the federal Liberals under Justin Trudeau brought a wave of optimism—“sunny ways,” they called it. But since then, nearly 13,000 people in Canada have died from accidental drug poisoning and overdose, and the body count has cast a pall over this government’s first term in office during what is undoubtedly one of the worse human rights disasters of our time.
Now, with a second mandate, the Liberals have another chance to do what is right: embrace evidence-based policies that will help end the deaths and human suffering crippling communities across Canada. But this time, there is one key difference that is cause for cautious optimism: with a minority government, the Liberals are now beholden to other parties for their power to govern, and at least two—the New Democratic and Green parties—have espoused progressive, bold ideas that the Liberals failed to embrace fully during their first term.
Both have called for the decriminalization of drugs (for personal possession), a step Portugal took in 2001, which has shown positive health and social outcomes. The Greens went one step further and stated their support for a safe and regulated supply of currently-illegal drugs (“safe supply”). This would directly address the root cause of this human rights and public health crisis: a toxic drug supply that is the product of an illegal, unregulated market created through prohibition. Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal NDP, stated he would have called a national public health emergency on the first day of his government if he had won. This is a declaration the Liberals failed to call in their five years of governing—one which would have mobilized additional resources, underscored the urgency of this crisis among Canadians, and helped remove the deep stigma around substance use entrenched in society. Now, hopefully pressured by the NDP, the Liberals have a second chance to make that declaration.
With a minority government, we expect to hear strengthened calls for action and pressure from other political parties to act, and a renewed openness to exploring bold new initiatives led by people affected by substance use. That is because two parties in Ottawa have vocally called for change (decriminalization and legal regulation), and now one of them holds some degree of power to influence the trajectory of government. The NDP’s support is necessary to pass legislation, and keeping them on side is in the best interest of the governing Liberals.
The run-up to an election is also never an ideal time to take political risks, but now the Liberals have no such obstacle. The willingness and openness to do what is right should be an easier political path for a party that has just started its second term. And now, dependent on the support of other parties to maintain their tenuous grasp on power, the Liberals can let these parties champion in Parliament the politically contentious yet desperately needed policy solution to end the drug poisoning crisis they’ve been reluctant to implement.
To be fair, the federal Liberals have done a vastly better job than the Conservatives would have in the area of harm reduction. During their five years in power they approved at least 40 supervised consumption sites (including mobile sites) and streamlined the process to applying for and opening these life-saving facilities. They have also begun to explore safe supply initiatives; and in general taken steps in the right direction, but never enough or with large enough strides to prevent the catastrophic loss of life unfolding across Canada. It is now time to take those steps. They have both the time, and support to do so. We hope to see not only more supervised consumption sites, but more stable funding and resources for those already saving countless lives every day.
With a new mandate and two parties supporting bold policy changes, Justin Trudeau has more latitude than ever to do what is right. It is precisely during times of crisis such as this where leadership is tested, and leadership can shine. We hope this will be one of those moments.