This week Canada earned condemnation from health experts and advocates for drug-policy reform when it signed onto a renew commitment to the United States' war on drugs.
"We should be extremely disappointed, frustrated and angry that prohibition policies that literally kill 1000’s of Canadians each year - and actually promotes drug use - is supported by our leaders," Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, wrote on Twitter yesterday (September 25). "Canada signs on to U.S.-led renewal of war on drugs."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed Canada's participation in America's drug war at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday (September 24). He made Canada one of 130 nations to support U.S. President Donald Trump's "Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem." The document restates America's commitment to combating drug use with law enforcement and an "international drug-control system to adequately respond to dangerous emerging synthetic drugs".
Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway, argued that the position Canada has taken will result in a greater loss of life.
"Health experts, mayors, and police chiefs are calling for the #decriminalization and regulation of substance use to save lives," he wrote on social media. "Instead, today we see Trudeau sign on to the failed #WarOnDrugs approach, demanded by Trump."
Marilou Gagnon, president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association and an associate professor at the University of Victoria, noted that the prime minister's endorsement of the war on drugs is at odds with members of Trudeau's own party.
"Your message is clear @JustinTrudeau," she wrote online. "Evidence does not matter. Human rights do not matter. Lives do not matter. The votes of @liberal_party members do not matter. Recommendations from policy experts, moms, frontline workers & researchers do not matter. (Liberal party members voted in favour of removing criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs at a convention in Halifax last April.)
Dr. Hakique Virani, an assistant clinical professor with the University of Alberta's department of medicine, suggested that Trudeau signed the drug-war pledge in order to advance Canada's ongoing negotiations with the U.S. related to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). If that's the case, Virani argued that Canada will get a bad deal.
"Other countries speculate Canada had to endorse Trump's declaration renewing the war on drugs so NAFTA negotiations would go well. But as far as trade goes, Prime Minister, you just handed a big win to the drug trade," Virani wrote online.
"With one Canadian dying every two hours from overdose, we could have sided with the smart folks," he continued. "Instead, we signed on with the likes of [Russian president Valdimir] Putin, [Philippines president Rodrigo] Duterte, and the President of a country losing more people to drug poisoning than we are [the United States]."
The drug war is usually described as beginning in June 1971 when then U.S. president Richard Nixon declared narcotics "public enemy number one".
Since then, the war has failed by several measures of note.
Last year, more than 72,000 people in America died after taking drugs. That's up from an average of roughly 15,000 deaths per year 20 years earlier.
The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and incarcerated millions of people—the vast majority of them African American. Yet prices for illicit narcotics—an indication of supply and availability—have remained stable or decreased over time.
At the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Monday, Trump suggested the overdose epidemic could be resolved with a combination of law-enforcement measures deployed alongside treatment and prevention initiatives.
“The call is simple,” he said. “Reduce drug demand, cut off the supply of illicit drugs, expand treatment and straighten international co-operation. If we take these steps together, we can save the lives of countless people in all corners of the world.”
The document to which Trudeau committed Canada is unusual in that it was not crafted with the cooperation of the nations that signed it, which is the norm for such agreements made at the United Nations. As reported by the Globe and Mail, "The statement was not drafted in the usual multilateral process of a declaration from the UN and the wording was presented as non-negotiable."
The document is written in bureaucratic language that generally sounds inconsequential. "We recognize the world drug problem presents evolving challenges, including newly emerging synthetic drugs, which we commit to address and counter through a comprehensive, scientific evidence-based approach, and we note the links between drug trafficking, corruption, and other forms of organized crime, and, in some cases, terrorism," it reads.
But representatives for several countries that declined to sign the declaration have said they did so because the document is at odds with their nations' beliefs that addiction and drug use should be treated as a health issue.
"We would have wanted a stronger emphasis on the health aspects of drug policies to be able to support this particular initiative,” reads a statement released by Norway's ministry of foreign affairs.
Canada has slowly begun a debate on the decriminalization of illicit drugs.
The call to remove criminal penalties for the personal possession of illegal narcotics like cocaine and heroin is one that's shared by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, B.C. health officials and some B.C. politicians, Toronto's medical officer of health, and the public-health director of Montreal.
Last year, there were 1,450 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 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.
Trudeau and his health minister, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, have however repeatedly stated that the Liberal government will not consider decriminalizing drugs.
"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," Taylor said in the House of Commons last February.
The outgoing Vancouver mayor came out in favour of decriminalization the following month. In response, Health Canada supplied to the Straight with a statement. “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,” it reads.
And in April 2018, in response to Liberal members voting in favour of the party adopting a position in favour of decriminalization, Trudeau again said 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 emphasized.