Travis Lupick is the author of Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction.
The debate around decriminalizing all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, has moved decidedly into Canada’s mainstream. In July, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) called on Ottawa to drop criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of drugs. Meanwhile, many public-health agencies have arrived at the same conclusion; through 2019, top health officials for the country’s three largest cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – all stated publicly that they, too, favour ending arrests for minor drug crimes.
Then, on Aug. 20, The Globe and Mail reported that the independent Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) has directed members to henceforth refrain from pursuing charges for drug possession in all but the most serious of cases. This could mean de facto decriminalization.
These moves were largely in response to an overdose epidemic that has only intensified since COVID-19 arrived. Overdose deaths have soared over and above anything the fentanyl crisis had brought before. Toronto Public Health just revealed that, with 27 suspected overdose deaths, July was the city’s deadliest month on record. Authorities are growing desperate and turning to ideas they previously might have considered too controversial.
Despite the growing chorus of experts and stakeholders calling for decriminalization, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly stated that the Liberals would not do so. But that chorus is missing one important voice: Canada’s drug users. Many want decriminalization, but they will also have tough questions for any potential move – and their warnings might surprise people.
For drug users, the potential pitfalls of decriminalization are frightening and all too likely to happen. One fear they have about decriminalization is that authorities will drop criminal punishments, only to raise an oppressive regime of civil penalties – specifically, issuing tickets and fines. Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law’s new book, Prison By Any Other Name, uses U.S. drug courts in the United States as an example of how this can backfire. In the U.S., it is increasingly common for someone caught with drugs to be diverted from the criminal system and instead directed through a drug court into treatment. While this sounds like a victory for health care over incarceration, the book’s authors show that drug courts’ lower threshold for apprehension actually “widens the net,” resulting in a larger overall number of people facing oppressive interactions with the state. “And then when people violate the terms of their drug-court sentence,” Ms. Schenwar told me recently, “often the penalty is incarceration, and often it is the maximum sentence.”
It’s easy to imagine the same thing happening with decriminalization, where someone caught with a crack pipe might receive a $300 ticket instead of a prison sentence, but then fail to pay that fine and find themselves imprisoned for that offence. And because police officers will likely hand out more of these tickets than they currently make actual arrests for possession, the result could be a larger number of people interacting with Canadian police, cycling through the courts and ending up in prison.
This is drug users’ greatest fear around decriminalization: that it will not result in less police harassment, but in fact mark the beginning of a new phase of the war on drugs, involving a different kind of violence.
A second fear is that decriminalization will be seen as the finish line, when it should in fact be where reforms only begin. As much as people who use drugs are fighting for decriminalization, it’s not the ideal solution. Decriminalization only concerns the demand side of the illicit drug market; it leaves supply in the hands of organized crime. The deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl will continue to kill users. Activists ask for decriminalization because they consider it a goal that is within reach, but what they actually want is full legalization and regulation – something akin to what the Trudeau government did with cannabis in 2015 (though the distribution of hard drugs would likely be somewhat medicalized). Users want to know what they put into their bodies. And a fear is that if Canada does decriminalize drugs, that’s where the experiment will end – far short of bringing in the regulations users argue would truly allow autonomy over their bodies.
People who use drugs want decriminalization, and they want it without delay – but not as a free-for-all. “We don’t want a dealer on every corner,” the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users’ Hugh Lampkin told me recently. “All we really want is the police to leave us alone.” Indeed, decriminalization should be an orderly end to police harassment, without new penalties replacing old – and only the first step on the road to legalization and regulation.
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