Later this week (April 19 to 21), Liberal Party of Canada members are scheduled to convene in Halifax to vote on policy positions ahead of the next election, which must take place by October 2019.
On the list of items up for debate is the decriminalization of illicit narcotics.
“Address the opioid crisis through a public-health approach, it reads. “The Government of Canada should treat drug abuse as a health issue, expand treatment and harm reduction services and re-classify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations.”
If adopted, it will mean that Canada’s governing party takes a position in favour of removing criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs, including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
Ahead of the convention, a petition is building online in support of Liberals members voting in its favour.
“Last year alone, more than four thousand Canadians died from overdose, according to federal health estimates,” reads an open letter accompanying the petition. “These deaths were preventable. Close to six thousand more will have died by the end of this year if the year-to-year 45% rate of increase continues. If the government had heeded the advice of those with lived experience, those working directly with those at-risk, and experts in public health, this crisis would not have grown the way it has. We continue to call for evidence-based, compassionate drug policies.”
The letter acknowledges steps that the Liberal government has taken in response to Canada’s overdose epidemic and argues that decriminalization should be next.
“We urge you to be the progressive government you promised to be, choosing human rights and evidence-based policy over ideological relics,” it reads. “A resolution for sensible drug policy is on the agenda at the April 2018 federal Liberal convention. We wholly support this resolution and urge that you accept it as a party policy and quickly advance legislation to decriminalize low-level possession in accordance with that policy.”
The group behind the petition calls itself the Ad-Hoc National Advisory Committee for Decriminalization. It’s led by Leila Attar, an Ottawa teenager who emerged as an advocate for drug-policy reform after she survived a fentanyl overdose that was the result of drugs that were sold to her as Percocet.
A copy of the petition dated April 15 includes more than 200 signatories. It includes the names of prominent individuals and organizations based in B.C.
Among them are Pivot Legal Society, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, and Moms Stop the Harm, plus outgoing Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition executive director Donald MacPherson, and Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson.
On March 9, Robertson was quoted in a media release alongside a City of Vancouver recommendation for the federal government to “immediately” decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs.
“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 in the release. "Volunteers and first responders are working around the clock to keep people alive, but lives are on the line and more action is urgently needed.”
The federal NDP took a similar position in favour of decriminalization after Jagmeet Singh was elected its leader last October. While campaigning for that position, Singh argued that addiction should be treated as a health-care issue and said that could only happen if criminal penalties for possession were dropped.
On February 1, Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver-Kingsway, raised the idea in the House of Commons.
“Jagmeet Singh has proposed the only real solution: treat addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one,” Davies said during question period. “When will this government abandon the failed war on drugs and adopt a health-based approach to addiction and drug use?”
It remains far from certain, however, that the Liberals who gather in Halifax this week will vote to see their party support decriminalization.
In response to Davies’s question in the federal legislature, Canada’s minister of health, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, said that decriminalization will not happen while the Liberals are in power.
"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,” she said.
In addition, Trudeau himself has repeatedly dismissed the idea.
“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.
Last year 1,446 people in B.C. died of an illicit drug overdose and more than 4,000 people across Canada died after taking opioids.