Former presidents and prime ministers recommend North American cities ignore drug laws to slow overdose deaths

An organization that counts former UN secretary general Kofi Annan among its members suggests local governments and police simply stop enforcing federal drug laws

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      An international think tank has floated an unconventional but pragmatic idea for how North America might begin to rein in a skyrocketing number of drug-overdose deaths.

      "Decide to de facto decriminalize drug use and possession for personal use at municipal, city or state/province levels," reads one recommendation included in an October 2 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP). "Do not pursue such offenses so that people in need of health and social services can access them freely, easily and without fear of legal coercion."

      In both Canada and the United States, drug laws are a federal issue, where questions of legal access and penalties for possession and trafficking are decided by politicians in Ottawa and Washington D.C.

      What the GCDP—a group of "globally influential personalities" that counts former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan among its membersis suggesting is that municipal governments and local law-enforcement agencies do not attempt to change federal laws but instead simply ignore them.

      There are many precedents where cities as well as provinces and states have done exactly that. For example, in 2015, the City of Vancouver said it would begin regulating storefronts selling marijuana, and the Vancouver Police Department said it did not consider the enforcement of marijuana laws a priority. Similarly, cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto have said they will not enforce some immigration laws (which are also mostly federal) in locations such as hospitals and schools, creating so-called sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants.

      In some ways, B.C. government agencies and their partners are already ignoring specific sections of Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

      Last January, the Straight reported that the provincial government's nonprofit partners on social-housing have made spaces available inside their buildings to which tenants are told they should bring hard drugs to inject in relative safety.

      In response to the worst overdose epidemic in B.C.'s history, government partners have integrated injection-drug rooms into supportive-housing buildings, essentially decriminalizing narcotics that under federal law remain illegal.
      Travis Lupick

      The previous month, in December 2016, then-B.C. minister of health Terry Lake announced that the provincial government would immediately “support the development of overdose-prevention sites”. To operate legally, such facilities—where people bring hard drugs to inject under the supervision of facility staff—require an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. But, in response to the fentanyl crisis, Lake said B.C. would open sites without fulfilling that legal requirement, and today more than 15 operate across the province.

      The GCDP's list of commissioners includes former heads of state such as Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Jorge Sampaio of Portugal, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, and Joyce Banda of Malawi, among others.

      The report the group released today is in response to an unprecedented increase in drug-overdose deaths across North America.

      According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last year there were an estimated 64,000 fatal overdoses in the United States. That's up from a little more than 40,000 U.S. overdose deaths in 2010 and about 18,000 deaths in 2000.

      Canada does not track drug-overdose deaths at a national level. The federal government, however, recently begin attempting to compile statistics for deaths attributed to opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone (brand name OxyContin). According to Health Canada, at least 2,458 Canadians died after taking an opioid in 2016 (the early state of the government's tracking system means that number is likely a conservative estimate and is expected to rise).

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      In B.C., where the coroners service closely tracks illicit-drug overdose deaths, it is projected that more than 1,500 people will die of an illicit-drug overdose this year. That's up from 978 fatal overdoses in 2016, 519 the year before that, and 369 in 2014. During the first seven months of 2017, the synthetic opioid fentanyl was detected in 81 percent of illicit-drug-overdose deaths in B.C.

      The GCDP's recommendations are unlikely to receive significant attention in the United States, where most local police departments still enforce drug laws with zeal. But, coupled with the Vancouver and B.C. initiatives described above, the GCDP's report could find a more receptive audience among Canadian politicians looking for new ideas for how to respond to the fentanyl crisis.

      The GCDP's website states that the group's members share a belief that they "must advocate for drug policies based on scientific evidence".

      "Today, the consensus on which the international drug control regime was established more than fifty years ago is broken," it reads. "A growing number of national or local authorities are moving away from a prohibitive attitude towards drugs and experimenting with different ways of managing their presence in society. These include the legal regulation of various substances, ending the criminalization of people who use drugs, and implementing—albeit not enough—harm reduction interventions and a large spectrum of therapies tailored to meet the needs, the will and the potential of everyone. Crucially, the discussion is based on evidence, and innovations are spreading across the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and the Pacific."