NDP leader Jagmeet Singh stops short of support for drug legalization despite more overdose deaths

During his campaign for leadership of the NDP, Singh made national headlines when he called for the Trudeau government to decriminalize all drugs, including cocaine and heroin

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      On a rainy Thursday (November 2) morning, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh took a walk around the Downtown Eastside. He met with members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and frontline staff working for the nonprofit Portland Hotel Society, and he received a brief training session in overdose response at one of Vancouver’s new bare-bones injection facilities.

      “When you see what is going on, on the ground, when you see it with your own eyes, it really gives you a different perspective,” Singh told the Straight while on his walk with Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway.

      Singh, a former leader of the Ontario New Democrats who has trained as a criminal-defence lawyer, was elected leader of the federal NDP on October 1. During that campaign, he made national headlines when he called for the Trudeau government to decriminalize all drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

      At an overdose-prevention site that faces into an alley near the intersection of East Hastings and Columbia streets, Singh explained why he supports a policy that so many view as radical—removing criminal penalties for personal possession—and why he has stopped short of calling for full legalization.

      “To me, mental health, addiction, and poverty do not sound like a criminal-justice problem; they sound like a social-justice problem,” he said. “They should be treated as such. We can’t solve a health crisis or a social-justice crisis with the criminal-justice system.”

      This year, it is projected that more than 1,500 people in B.C. will die of an illicit-drug overdose. That compares to an average of 204 deaths each year from 2001 to 2010. So far in 2017, the synthetic opioid fentanyl is associated with more than 80 percent of fatal overdoses.

      While decriminalization would save taxpayers money on policing, the courts, and prisons, it would leave Canada’s illicit-drug supply in the hands of dealers and organized crime. Alternatively, advocates for legalization argue that a regulated supply of opioids distributed via Canada’s health-care system would minimize the risk of fentanyl and therefore reduce overdose deaths.

      Singh conceded that decriminalization would leave fentanyl and more dangerous substances such as carfentanil on the streets. But he said the country isn’t ready for full legalization.

      “We have to get past that first hurdle, decriminalization,” he said. “I’ve really just focused first on decriminalization. I haven’t looked beyond that. It’s a massive thing….People aren’t all there yet.”

      On November 1, Andrew Scheer, the newly elected leader of the federal Conservative party, told the Globe and Mail that he remains opposed to the decriminalization of hard drugs.

      “As I have been told by several representatives of the law-enforcement community, often the ability to prosecute for these types of heavier drugs is a way to get people in the door to rehabilitation services," Scheer said.

      Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau has similarly ruled out removing criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs like heroin.

      “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 Vancouver last August.

      Singh maintained that addiction cannot truly be treated as a health-care issue until decriminalization happens.

      “It’s clear it’s something that we need to do,” he said. “And I will work towards it.”

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service
      Travis Lupick is a staff reporter and the author of Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction. You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.