With months left before Canada becomes the first country in the G7 to fully legalise marijuana, members of the country’s Liberal party, led federally by Justin Trudeau, are calling on their government to go one step further and decriminalise the possession and consumption of all illicit drugs.
The internal push to embrace the idea is one of more than two dozen resolutionsset to be debated this week as the political party gathers for their national convention in the east coast city of Halifax. The resolution is one of three put forward by the national caucus, suggesting widespread support among Liberal MPs.
“It’s one of the few issues where we’re taught from a young age, that drugs are bad and that it’s normal to throw people in jail for using drugs,” said Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Liberal MP who has championed decriminalisation since he was elected in 2015.
“Yet when you actually start looking underneath those claims and at the actual evidence and hear from people who have study or lived this issue, this isn’t the right approach.”
Framing drug use as a criminal justice issue rather than one of health has simply served to fuel a lucrative black market, divert resources from law enforcement and marginalise those who are often already on the margins of society, he argued.
The push towards decriminalisation comes as the opioid crisis continues to claim thousands of lives on both sides of the 49th parallel. An estimated 4,000 Canadians died last year due to opioids, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada – more than the number of Canadians who died due to motor vehicle accidents and homicides combined.
In British Columbia, the western Canadian province where officials declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in 2016, an average of four people die of overdoses each day.
The federal Liberal government has taken steps to address the crisis, expediting the approval of supervised injection sites and permitting physicians to prescribe heroin in cases of severe addiction. These are important steps, said Erskine-Smith. “But obviously if we want to save lives we need to do more.”
That could mean adopting an idea that is gaining steam across Canada as the number of opioid deaths continue to swell. Earlier this year, Canada’s New Democratic Party became the first major political party in Canada to officially champion the idea.
Weeks later the city of Vancouver recommended that the federal government immediately decriminalise personal possession of illicit drugs. “We are witnessing a horrific and preventable loss of life as a poisoned drug supply continues to kill our neighbours, friends and family,” Gregor Robertson, Vancouver’s mayor, said in a statement.
Their stance is backed by prominent organisations, from the Global Commission on Drug Policy to the World Health Organization. Many of them point to the experience of Portugal, which in 2001 did away with criminal penalties for simple possession and consumption of illicit drugs.
The move was coupled with an expansion of treatment and harm reduction services such as safe injection sites. In Portugal, those caught with drugs appear before dissuasion commissions, which can refer people to treatment or impose monetary fines.
Statistics suggest the approach is working; Portugal has seen dramatic drops in overdose deaths, HIV infection rates and drug-related crimes, while the number of drug users seeking treatment has increased.
Should the Liberals approve their resolution this week, decriminalisation would be backed by two of Canada’s three major parties. But even so, there is little guarantee that the idea will make its way into the Liberal platform in the upcoming 2019 federal election. Trudeau, who leads the party, has repeatedly said his government is not considering legalising any other drugs besides marijuana.
Erskine-Smith stressed the difference between the two issues. The federal government’s efforts to end marijuana prohibition aim to halt the flow of profits to organised crime, given that Canadians spent an estimated C$5.7 billion on marijuana last year.
But when it comes to decriminalisation, said Erskine-Smith, “we’re not talking removing the criminal sanction for sale, we’re not talking removing the criminal sanction for production, as we did with cannabis.”
The change in approach comes with political risks, he acknowledged. Canada’s Conservative party remains staunchly opposed to the idea and have shown themselves willing to exploit fears over the proposal to gain votes.
Last year the party’s leader Andrew Scheer attacked Trudeau on Twitter, alleging that his government was considering decriminalisation drugs beside marijuana.
“It’s funny. When you talk to conservative members of Parliament one-on-one, I think they’re open to the idea,” said Erskine-Smith. “But my hope is – especially when confronted with the numbers of Canadians who have lost their lives, and we’re talking Canadians of all backgrounds, Canadians of all political parties – I really do hope we’re all able to get past the politics of it and follow the evidence.”