A top contender for leadership of the federal New Democrats has said he favours removing criminal penalties for the personal possession of all drugs, including cocaine and heroin.
“What we need to do immediately is to decriminalize and work towards harm reduction, support, and rehabilitation,” Jagmeet Singh said at a September 10 leadership debate in Vancouver.
Singh, an Ontario MPP representing Bramalea-Gore-Malton, previously worked as a defence lawyer in Toronto.
"I can tell you that people who are charged with personal-possession offences are often those who are poor, often those who have mental-health issues, and often those who are addicted,” he said.
"This does not sound to me like a criminal-justice problem. That sounds to me like a social-justice problem and a health-care problem," Singh continued.
"I would call for the decriminalization of all personal-possession offences when it comes to drugs. Period."
Singh joins a growing number of B.C. politicians and policymakers who have voiced support for decriminalization or who have said they believe it is time Canada begin debating the matter. (Among them is Don Davies, for example, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway.)
Calls for a public discussion are largely in response to the province’s overdose epidemic. It’s projected that more than 1,500 people will die of an illicit-drug overdose in B.C. this year. That’s up from 978 fatal overdoses in 2016, 519 the year before, and 369 in 2014.
According to a September 7 report by the B.C. Coroners Service, 81 percent of deaths during the first seven months of 2017 involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid significantly more toxic than heroin.
“We’re not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we’re doing with marijuana,” Trudeau said in Vancouver on August 1.
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.
Decriminalization would not solve B.C.’s fentanyl crisis. That’s because it would 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.
Singh’s NDP opponents at the September 10 debate—Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, and Guy Caron—did not match Singh’s support for decriminalization but did not condemn the idea either.
The country best known for decriminalizing drugs is Portugal. It removed criminal penalties for personal possession in 2001. The man who led that effort, Dr. João Goulão, visited Vancouver for his first time just last week (beginning on September 6).
Interviewed ahead of that trip, he told the Straight that even though decriminalization would not solve B.C.’s problem with fentanyl, he believes it would help.
“Decriminalization is important because drug users will no longer fear approaching [health-care] responders,” Goulão, now Portugal’s national drug coordinator, explained. “It would be an important step. Everything is easier in an environment of decriminalization than it is in an environment of criminalization. Of course, it will not solve every problem. But it would constitute a success for drug users and help drug users with responses.”
In Portugal in 2015, the rate of fatal overdoses was three people per 100,000, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. The B.C. Coroners Service has reported that as of July 2017, the rate of overdose deaths per 100,000 residents of this province is 31.3.
Goulão repeatedly emphasized that decriminalizing drugs is not all Portugal did in 2001. The country also began investing heavily in addictions treatment and rehabilitation.
“Since then, we have had dramatic improvements in all available indicators,” Goulão said. “Overdose deaths, HIV infections, and the number of problematic drug users have all dropped since then.”
The NDP is scheduled to vote for a new leader between September 18 and October 1.More