The Liberal Party of Canada has voted in favour of removing criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs.
It’s one of a number of policies that the party selected as priorities at a convention in Halifax on Saturday (April 21).
Members also voted in favour of universal pharmacare, decriminalizing consensual sex work, and expanding medicare to cover mental-health issues.
A total of 15 policies were selected to become official party priorities.
However, a policy’s status as a party priority does not mean that party leaders have to include it in the document where it really counts: the party’s campaign platform for the next federal election.
And on the policy that’s attracted the most attention since Saturday—decriminalizing drugs—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that it is not going to happen.
"We'll of course reflect on next steps for a broad range of issues they bring up. On that particular issue, as I've said, it's not part of our plans," Trudeau said at a press conference after the results of the party vote were released.
Trudeau’s opposition to drug decriminalization is one he has reiterated several times over the last year.
“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.
The Liberal health minister, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, said the same thing in the House of Commons last February.
"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,” Petitpas Taylor said in response to a question from NDP MP Don Davies.
Calls for the Liberal party to adopt a position in favour of decriminalizing drugs have grown in volume and frequency as Canada’s opioid crisis has intensified.
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.
On March 9, the City of Vancouver joined calls for decriminalization when it officially “recommended” that Canada “immediately” decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs, including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
In Canada, drugs like cocaine, heroin, and illicit fentanyl are illegal at the federal level. They’re listed in Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which describes their possession as a criminal offence. That means you can go to jail simply for having these substances in your pocket, which leads people to hide their drug use.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, in 2017, 59 percent of fatal overdoses occurred inside, in a private residence, while another 25 percent occurred inside another sort of residence, such as a hotel room or shelter. Only 11.5 percent occurred outside.
Advocates for decriminalization maintain that by removing criminal penalties for possession, people will be encouraged to seek treatment for an addiction and to use drugs more openly, in areas where there is someone present to intervene in the event of an overdose.
Decriminalization is a relatively simple process. It would involve removing sections of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that apply to the personal possession of the drugs in question.
Canada’s next federal election is scheduled to occur by October 2019.