Despite the legalization of cannabis currently underway in Canada, the country will not be decriminalizing any other drugs, according to a government official. Thierry Belair, a spokesman for Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, told the CBC that the federal government has no plans for further decriminalization. The government announcement comes amid calls from major Canadian cities to remove criminal penalties for the consumption and possession of small amounts of drugs.
Civic officials and public health advocates in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal have called on the federal government to enact such changes. Fardous Hosseiny is the national director of research and public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association, a group that supports the decriminalization of drugs. He said that criminalizing drug use prevents people from getting the help they need and that it is time to try a new strategy.
“Given the scale of the opioid crisis in Canada, we know that we need to take bold action,” Hosseiny said. “We know that evidence tells us that the war on drugs hasn’t worked, so criminalization really stigmatizes people and creates barriers for them accessing treatment and accessing help when they need it.”
Health Canada reported last month that in 2017, almost 4,000 Canadians had died of an apparent opioid overdose.
Cities Call For Change
Earlier this month, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, said that the stigma of criminalization perpetuates the addiction crisis.
“It forces people into unsafe drug use practices and creates barriers to seeking help,” Dr. de Villa said. “While considerable work has been done, the situation remains urgent and too many people are still dying. This is why I am calling on the federal government to take urgent action,” she added.
Dr. de Villa also said continued criminalization magnifies the negative effects of drug use and addiction.
“Those potential harms are always exacerbated or made worse when people are forced to consume, or produce, or obtain those drugs in the realm of the illegal,” she said. “What we need to do is take a more public health-focused approach, treating drug use as a social issue rather than a criminal issue which our current regime does.”
In Montreal last week, Dr. Mylène Drouin, the city’s public health director, echoed those sentiments, saying decriminalization of drug offenses is “one of the measures to consider in the public health response to a problem without precedence in numerous Canadian cities.”
And in Vancouver last March, Mary Clare Zak, the managing director of social policy, said that other nations that have tried decriminalization have seen public health successes.
“What we’ve learned from countries, for example like Portugal, is that when you decriminalize then people are feeling like they’re actually safe enough to ask for treatment,” she said. “People who are dying are more likely to be indoors and struggle with accessing help or assistance because of their illicit drug use.”
Federal Government Responds
Spokesman Belair said that the federal government acknowledges the consequences of stigmatization and has taken measures to address the issue. He cited simplifying access to non-opioid therapies and the approval of 25 supervised injection sites as examples of the government’s action.