The Government of Canada has again said that it will not consider decriminalizing drugs in response to Canada’s opioid crisis, which is estimated to have killed 4,000 people last year.
“We are not looking to decriminalize or legalize all illegal drugs; but there are important steps we can take to treat problematic substance use as a public health issue—not as a criminal issue,” reads a statement supplied by André Gagnon, a spokesperson for Health Canada.
“That is why we restored harm reduction as a core pillar of our response and made legislative changes to streamline the application process for supervised consumption sites.”
The statement was issued in response to a request for comment that the Straight filed with the federal Department of Justice. It was prompted by a March 9 City of Vancouver media release.
Included in that document was a recommendation that the federal government “convene a multi-sectoral task force to implement immediate decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs”.
The recommendation marks the city adopting an official position in favour of the decriminalization of all illicit narcotics, including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
The city did not make Mayor Gregor Robertson available for an interview. In the March 9 media release, he is quoted expressing frustration about authorities’ lack of progress on the overdose epidemic.
“We are witnessing a horrific and preventable loss of life as a poisoned drug supply continues to kill our neighbours, friends, and family,” Robertson said. “More action is urgently needed.”
Last year, there were 1,436 illicit-drug overdose deaths across B.C. That compares to an average of 204 deaths annually for the years 2001 to 2010. More than 80 percent of 2017 deaths were associated with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid significantly more toxic than heroin.
Advocates for decriminalization—that is, for removing criminal penalties for personal possession—argue that it would reduce stigma, bring drugs out of the shadows, and encourage people to seek treatment for addiction issues.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly dismissed calls for decriminalization (usually in response to questions from residents of Vancouver).
“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 B.C. last August.
Donald MacPherson was the city’s drug-policy coordinator from 2000 to 2009 and today is executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.
“People are really beginning to understand that the crisis is demanding a more serious look at a more radical shift in our thinking,” he told the Straight. “Municipalities are starting to say, ‘Look, this isn’t working for us anymore.’ ”
“Especially with discussion happening within the Liberal party, I think the government is going to have to start to look at this,” he said.