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Canadian Drug Policy Takes a Step Backward

What do people want their country’s drug policies to accomplish?

To answer this question, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition reached out to people around the country including service providers, people who use drugs, and their family members.

The responses were startling. Story after story confirmed that many people desired policy that would minimize the harms of drug use—and that Canada’s own drug strategies were thwarting that goal.

With the support of the Open Society Foundations, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition collected these views to create Getting to Tomorrow: A Report on Canadian Drug Policy, the first comprehensive report by a civil society organization on the failures of Canada’s approach to drug policy. Its recommendations include:

  • Replace the current national anti-drug strategy with one focused on health and human rights.
  • Decriminalize all drugs for personal use.
  • Create a regulatory system for adult cannabis use.
  • Increase efforts to eliminate stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs.
  • Scale up comprehensive health and social services, including housing and treatment services that engage people with drug problems.
  • Enhance educational programs about drug use and promote life-saving interventions including safer consumption services, opioid substitution therapies, heroin assisted treatment, and critical harm reduction services.
  • Collect and monitor data on drug use and its effects in Canada.

The failures of the existing system are all the more disappointing because Canada used to be a leader in progressive drug policy. In the recent past, harm reduction was a key pillar of the national drug strategy. The former federal government supported innovative approaches like supervised injection sites, heroin assisted treatment, and the expansion of needle exchange programs as well as a focus on prevention through social development rather than “Just Say No”–style programs that have been shown not to work.

A major challenge in the current approach is that the government puts the majority of its resources behind policing, courts, and prisons at the expense of public health and safety. Since 2007, the reassertion of criminal laws to suppress the trade and use of illegal substances—encapsulated by last year’s enactment of mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes—supports neither health nor public safety. They only lead to overcrowded and costly prisons. And like the United States, Canada’s drug laws disproportionally target marginalized groups.

Moreover, there has been an unwillingness to consider alternatives. The Canadian government was one of the few that voted against the 2012 motion at the UN to have a General Assembly special session on global drug policy in 2016.

This refusal is unacceptable to people who face intolerably long waits for drug treatment services due to the prohibitive expense of private treatment and the lack of support for publicly funded services.

In many places, the harm associated with drug use continues unabated because of a lack of commitment to services like needle exchanges and supervised injection sites. As a result, rates of HIV and HCV associated with drug use remain unacceptably high.

In 2010, 30.4 percent of new HIV infections in women were attributed to injection drug use versus 13.5 percent of new cases in men. Cases of HIV attributed to injection drug use among First Nations, Métis, and Inuit persons went up more than 50 percent between 2001 and 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. Seventy countries embrace harm reduction in their drug strategy policy frameworks.

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition’s report indicates that it is time to follow suit and modernize Canada’s legislative, policy, and regulatory frameworks that address psychoactive substances.

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