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Opinion Decriminalization is the overdue debate Canada needs to have around overdoses

Travis Lupick is the author of Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction.

It was with reluctance that Terry Lake called himself an advocate for decriminalization. It was 2017, he was health minister of British Columbia and an epidemic of overdose deaths had made illicit narcotics an issue with which he was confronted every day.

“There was a woman,” Mr. Lake recounted in an interview. “She was a drug user … and I said, 'Help me understand how decriminalization helps you.’

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“She said, ‘If my boyfriend beats me up, I’m afraid to call the police because I am a drug user. I’m afraid that I’m going to be the one who gets arrested.’ And then the light went on for me about what criminalization does to users.”

Mr. Lake, who will be running as a federal Liberal candidate in the B.C. riding of Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, said he had wrestled with the idea for some time, and in that conversation, the woman had convinced him.

“That, to me, is a powerful argument for decriminalization,” he explained. “Allowing people to come forward and say, ‘I need help,’ without fear of going to prison, is a powerful argument for decriminalization."

In B.C., talk of decriminalization – removing criminal penalties for the personal possession of all narcotics, including hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin – has entered the mainstream, pushed there by the opioid epidemic. On May 30, Statistics Canada reported that for the first time in more than four decades, life expectancy in the country did not increase from 2016 to 2017. The primary reason? Overdose deaths in one province: British Columbia.

Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said a Liberal government will not consider decriminalizing hard drugs. The reasons why likely have more to do with politics than policy. The Conservatives have found a talking point in criticizing how the Liberals legalized cannabis, and ahead of the 2019 election, further drug-policy reform would spend political capital that, especially among swing voters with a law-and-order bent, Mr. Trudeau does not have.

But what the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to appreciate is that Canada has already begun a national debate about decriminalization, regardless of its political inconvenience for the Liberals.

Top health officials for the country’s three largest cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – have all stated publicly that in the face of Canada’s overdose crisis, they are in favour of ending arrests for minor drug crimes.

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Two of six of Canada’s federal parties holding seats in the House of Commons – the NDP and the Greens – have similarly taken official positions in favour of decriminalization.

At the Liberals’ April, 2018, convention, Mr. Trudeau’s own party overwhelmingly voted in favour of doing the same. It was immediately made clear, however, that the proposal would not be included in the party’s campaign platform for 2019.

“It’s not part of our plans,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters shortly after the vote.

Jagmeet Singh not only supports decriminalization but also put the idea front and centre during his successful bid for the NDP leadership.

"I would call for the decriminalization of all personal-possession offences when it comes to drugs, period,” Mr. Singh said in 2017.

Since then, his MPs have framed the Liberal government’s rejection of the idea as a position that costs Canadian’s lives.

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“When will this government abandon the failed war on drugs and adopt a health-based approach to addiction and drug use?” NDP health critic Don Davies said in Parliament last year.

The Liberal Party’s newest candidate, Mr. Lake, is not its only party member to disagree with the Prime Minister on the issue. Its longest-serving MP, Hedy Fry, says it’s time Canada had a debate about legalization, which would go even further than removing penalties for personal possession, but actually place production and distribution under government regulation. “This is the discourse that we must have,” Dr. Fry told me in 2017.

Dissent among Liberal MPs extends beyond left-leaning B.C. In July 2018, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the Liberal representing the Toronto riding of Beaches–East York, said Canada should decriminalize drugs to reduce stigma, which he argued would encourage people to access treatment.

More recently, Mr. Trudeau’s former health minister, now an independent MP, Jane Philpott came out in support of decriminalization.

“We need a public-health approach to drug policy,” she wrote on social media alongside a link to a Globe and Mail editorial in support of decriminalization.

Just how far this debate has already progressed became evident in April of 2019, when B.C.’s top health official, Bonnie Henry, issued a report that not only says B.C. should decriminalize drugs, but outlines the precise legal mechanisms with which the province could do it. "These actions are permitted under Section 92(14) of the Constitution Act,” Dr. Henry wrote.

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In specific locations, Canada has already decriminalized drugs.

At dozens of supervised-injection facilities now operating in 18 cities, people inject heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine without fear of persecution by police. It was the Trudeau government’s 2017 amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that allowed for the creation of these decriminalized bubbles. If the policy works in some areas, why not others?

As Mr. Lake and Mr. Erskine-Smith have argued, treating drug use as a health-care issue will reduce stigma, which in turn will encourage people to speak openly about an addiction and seek help when they are ready. Coupled with an expansion of complementary services including access to clean needles, supervised injection and on-demand treatment, decriminalization would bring drug users out of the shadows and improve their access to health care.

Canada’s opioid epidemic is an emergency without precedent. And yet, heading into the 2019 federal election, there is nothing that Mr. Trudeau can point to and say “a re-elected Liberal government will do this to reduce overdose deaths.”

Decriminalization could be that idea.

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