Yesterday (February 1), the prospect of decriminalizing the personal possession of illicit narcotics was formally raised in the House of Commons.
“In 2017, a staggering 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses, an unprecedented 1,400 people in British Columbia alone,” began Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver-Kingsway. “But this is not an opioid crisis, it is not an overdose crisis. It is a crisis of social isolation and bad drug policy.”
Davies then suggested the problem could be addressed with a proposal that was put forth last September by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. That month, when Singh was still a candidate for the party’s leadership, he argued that Canada should eliminate criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs, including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. He said that would help eliminate stigma.
“Jagmeet Singh has proposed the only real solution: treat addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one,” Davies said during question period yesterday. “When will this government abandon the failed war on drugs and adopt a health-based approach to addiction and drug use?”
In a brief telephone call this morning, Davies said he believed it was the first time the idea was formally raised in the House.
“I wanted to do it so that we can start normalizing discussion of this topic,” he told the Straight.
In the House yesterday, Davies’s suggestion was met with audible jeers.
Ginette Petitpas Taylor, minister of health and Liberal MP for Moncton–Riverview–Dieppe, responded to his question.
“Our government is treating this as a public-health issue and not a criminal matter,” she said.
"We are not looking at decriminalizing or legalizing any other drugs aside from cannabis, as decriminalizing would not ensure quality control of drugs, and there would still be the risk of contamination on the streets.
“By streamlining the application process of supervised-consumption sites and giving legal protection for those who seek emergency help during an overdose, we are working towards improving access to treatment and social services for those who need it.”
Petitpas Taylor was correct when she said that decriminalization would not address the contamination of street drugs.
Decriminalization would remove criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs. While the specifics would still have to be worked out, it could, for example, eliminate a police officer’s ability to arrest someone found with cocaine and might instead create a system where they would issue the person a fine. It would divert drug users away from the criminal-justice system, reduce stigma, and therefore likely encourage people to use drugs more openly, where they can access treatment services with greater ease.
Decriminalization would however leave Canada’s supply of illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine in the hands of street dealers and organized crime.
Legalization, on the other hand, would involve regulating hard drugs and bringing their supply and distribution under the control of government. That would possibly address the problem of fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid that is cut into street drugs and is largely responsible for Canada’s rise in overdose deaths.
In a November 2017 interview with the Straight, Singh said he was not prepared to support the idea of fully legalizing and regulating illicit narcotics.
“We have to get past that first hurdle, decriminalization,” he explained. “I’ve really just focused first on decriminalization. I haven’t looked beyond that. It’s a massive thing.…People aren’t all there yet.”
Singh stressed that the NDP’s plan to decriminalize drugs would not occur in isolation. To address overdose deaths, he emphasized that a policy of decriminalization would be implemented alongside substantial new investments in treatment programs for addiction.
On January 31, the B.C. Coroners Service released preliminary figures for illicit-drug overdose deaths in 2017. Last year, 1,422 people in B.C. died after taking drugs. The synthetic opioid fentanyl was associated with 81 percent of those deaths.
More than 1,400 fatal overdoses in B.C. is up from 993 the previous year, 518 in 2015, 369 in 2014, and 333 the year before that.
Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly ruled out removing criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs like heroin.
“We’re not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we’re doing with marijuana,” Trudeau told Global News while in Vancouver last August.
The issue does not, however, break along party lines. In February 2017, for example, Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, told the Straight she believes it is time for Canada to begin at least discussing the idea of legalization and regulation.
“This is the discourse that we must have now,” Fry said. “Nobody is ramming anything down anybody’s throats. I’m not saying, ‘Let’s legalize.’ But I am saying, ‘It’s time we discussed this, openly and publicly.’ ”More