With days to go before Canada’s 43rd general election, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer once again suggested on Thursday that the Liberals are looking to decriminalize hard drugs. They’re not. But the accusation highlights the federal parties’ vastly different approaches to drug policy.
Between January, 2016, and March, 2019, more than 12,800 Canadians died of apparent opioid-related overdoses.
The public health crisis has devastated communities across the country and is particularly pronounced in the west: B.C. has recorded roughly 1,500 deaths in each of the past two years – more than six times the provincial average in the 2000s. Alberta lost 705 people to opioid-related overdoses in 2017 and 795 in 2018.
The death toll is so staggering that it has lowered the country’s life expectancy for the first time in more than four decades. In B.C., life expectancy has fallen for two consecutive years.
Here’s what the parties say they will do.
The Liberal Party
After forming government following the 2015 election, the Liberal Party repealed legislation introduced by the previous Conservative government that made it more difficult to open supervised drug-use sites, with then-health minister Jane Philpott hailing the move as the beginning of a new federal strategy on substance-use disorder. There are now 39 of the harm-reduction sites operating across Canada.
Since then, the party has also reduced barriers to opioid substitution therapy with diacetylmorphine (pharmaceutical-grade heroin) and made it easier for practitioners to provide methadone. It legalized cannabis, making Canada the largest country to do so.
Looking forward, the Liberal Party says in its platform that it will invest in community-based services, treatment beds and the scaling up of the most effective programs, and “make drug treatment court the default option for first-time non-violent offenders charged exclusively with simple possession.”
Both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Liberal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor have repeatedly rejected calls to decriminalize drug possession, despite Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer claiming otherwise. Supporters of decriminalization say it would help people with addictions break a cycle of recidivism, remove the stigma of drug use and help facilitate access to treatment.
The party has said it will proceed on the issue of “safe supply” – that is, helping provide a regulated, quality-controlled source of drugs. This past summer, Ms. Petitpas Taylor announced $33.6-million in funding for safe-supply initiatives, for which it has been accepting applications.
The Conservative Party
The Conservative Party has pledged in its platform to “reorient” existing drug-related legislation so that all policies have abstinence-based recovery as their objective. It says it will invest in “recovery community centres, recovery high schools, and treatment centres.”
It would also spend $30-million over three years on a national campaign to educate Canadians on “the dangers of drug use and the benefits of staying drug free."
The party says it would also require full body scans of people entering prison to prevent drugs from being smuggled in and end needle-exchange programs in prisons.
On supervised drug-use sites, Mr. Scheer has said on numerous occasions that there must be community engagement. However, these sites already require extensive community consultations as part of the application process.
The party says it would also hire 250 more border officers and call for more inspections of shipments coming from China, where most of Canada’s illicit fentanyl, and its analogues, are manufactured.
The New Democratic Party
The NDP was the first major Canadian party to advocate for drug decriminalization. In 2017, then-leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh told The Globe and Mail he would “call for the immediate decriminalization of all personal possession offences when it comes to drugs, period,” and in 2018, NDP MP and health critic Don Davies introduced a resolution to that effect at the party’s national convention. It passed.
Mr. Singh has stopped short of expressing explicit support for safe supply, saying only that he is “open to any conversation about any solution that is going to save lives.” The NDP says in its platform it would declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency.
The party says in its platform that it will work with provinces to support supervised drug-use sites and expand access to treatment on demand. It will also launch an investigation into the role that drug companies may have played in fueling the opioid crisis and seek compensation for public-health costs.
B.C. has already launched a proposed class-action lawsuit on this matter that has received the backing of provinces across the country.
The Green Party
The Green Party says it will decriminalize drug possession. A September news release announcing the party’s position on this matter said that “decriminalizing drug possession will ensure that people have an access to a safe, screened supply.” However, decriminalizing only means that there would be no criminal penalties for possessing personal amounts of illicit drugs. It does not ensure a safe supply, which would only come from regulating currently illicit drugs or providing a safe alternative.
The party’s platform does not mention safe supply, but a spokesperson for Green Leader Elizabeth May says she does support it.
The party says it will also increase supports for mental health and addiction, increase funding to community-based organizations to test drugs and make naloxone kits more widely available to treat overdoses.