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An ambulance passes drug users as it arrives to help an overdose victim in a Downtown Eastside alley in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Two of Canada's three major political parties are considering removing criminal penalties for the personal possession and use of all drugs – a step that health and drug policy experts say is critical in treating problematic substance use as a health issue.

At a national convention in Ottawa last weekend, the federal New Democratic party passed a resolution to end the criminalization of the personal possession of all drugs, a move in line with leader Jagmeet Singh's position that problematic drug use should be treated as a social-justice and health-care issue rather than a criminal matter.

The NDP is the first major Canadian party to advocate for decriminalization, and it appears likely that it will also become the first to include it in a party platform.

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Under decriminalization, which is different from legalization, it would remain illegal to manufacture, sell and distribute illicit drugs.

NDP MP and health critic Don Davies, who helped prepare the resolution, said it's clear that punitive responses to illicit drug use have not worked and must be replaced with prevention, education and treatment.

"Let's quit wasting billions of dollars on a failed, criminalized, stigmatized approach to drug use that is misconceived and ineffective," Mr. Davies said in an interview. "I'm proud of our party for taking that bold step, for taking an evidence-based approach to this issue."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal government will legalize the recreational use of marijuana this year, has repeatedly said his party is not considering the decriminalization of any other drugs. However, the national Liberal caucus has signaled an appetite for change with a resolution to be considered at that party's national policy convention in Halifax in April.

"The government of Canada should treat drug abuse as a health issue, expand treatment and harm reduction services and re-classify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations," the resolution reads.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Liberal MP for Beaches-East York in Toronto, has for the past year publicly advocated for the decriminalization of all drug use. In an interview this week, he commended his party for bold moves it has taken so far – such as reducing barriers to opening supervised consumption sites and overturning a Conservative ban on heroin-assisted treatment – but said more needs to be done.

"We're light years ahead of where we were, but do I think we need to go further? Yes, without question," he said.

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Meanwhile, the Conservative Party of Canada says its priorities on drug use remain prevention and treatment. The party has floated the idea of reducing marijuana possession from a criminal to ticketable offence, but has never considered extending that policy further.

"The government should be focusing on treatment centres to get people that are on drugs now off, and on education," said MP Marilyn Gladu, the party's health critic. "We did see that when the Conservatives ran public education campaigns on marijuana, the marijuana usage rates were starting to drop. So really, that's the key."

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, the World Health Organization and both the Canadian and American public health associations support the decriminalization of possessing small quantities of currently illegal psychoactive substances. Such a move, they say, would free up police and court resources for more serious crimes, steer problematic drug users toward treatment rather than jail and underscore that addiction is a health issue.

Portugal decriminalized the purchase, possession and consumption of all psychoactive drugs for personal use in 2001. Those found using must appear before a local Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which then considers individual circumstances and can impose a non-criminal sanction such as a referral to treatment or a monetary fine.

Three population surveys since 2001 suggest drug use increased slightly, but then fell to rates lower than before the legislation was enacted. Drug deaths plummeted; a 2016 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that fatal overdoses fell to levels among the lowest in the European Union, as did new cases of HIV and AIDS among drug users.

For such a decriminalization model to work in Canada, access to treatment would have to be much more accessible, Mr. Davies said, noting there is "an appalling lack of it in the country."

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On Tuesday, rallies were held across Canada as part of the National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis. The top demand was for immediate decriminalization.

Initial estimates suggest that more than 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses last year. In British Columbia, at least 1,422 people died of illicit drug overdose deaths, with fentanyl being a factor in 81 per cent of those deaths.

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