The opioid crisis is a public health emergency that is getting worse. In the past few years there has been a massive increase in drug poisonings from tainted street drugs, and opioid-related deaths have been steadily increasing since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Between January and July of this year, opioids killed almost five times as many people in BC than COVID-19 did. In Nanaimo, overdose fatalities have already almost surpassed the 2019 total of 27. These numbers are people. They were family members and friends who were loved by other people.
The time is long overdue to accept that the “war on drugs” has been a colossal and wasteful failure. It has failed to protect the lives of individuals who use drugs, while stigmatizing addiction and burdening our criminal justice and healthcare systems.
I recently wrote to the Minister of Health urging the government to end the War on Drugs and adopt a new approach to address the opioid crisis. In my letter, I asked the Minister to decriminalize the possession of drugs for personal use, and guarantee a safe supply of opiates for individuals who use drugs.
Criminalizing drugs contributes to many societal problems, including overdoses, tainted drugs, homelessness, gang activity, unsafe communities, and prison overcrowding. The prohibition of drugs has disproportionately affected black and Indigenous communities. It has also come at great cost to taxpayers.
Instead, we should be decriminalizing drug use and addressing this crisis using a public health approach. Decriminalization should be accompanied by a suite of health and social services. Guaranteeing a safe supply should include providing safe drugs, clean syringes, and safe consumption sites with nurses and social workers on site.
While decriminalization is a first step, I also believe Canada should examine a policy of legalization and regulation of currently illegal drugs.
I was encouraged by recent comments made by Dr. Teresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, stating that Canada should discuss decriminalizing hard drugs to address the opioid crisis. Many other public officials already support decriminalization including BC’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC Premier John Horgan, and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
I encourage you to read my letter below, and add your voice to the growing calls for decriminalization of drugs by signing the parliamentary petition I recently sponsored.
The Honourable Patty Hajdu, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Health
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6
August 25, 2020
Dear Minister Hajdu,
I am writing to you today to add my voice to the growing number calling to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use in Canada. I strongly support any action you may be considering toward granting a nation-wide exemption from this offence under section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
The time is long overdue to accept that the War on Drugs has been a colossal and wasteful failure. It has failed to stop the smuggling and distribution of illegal drugs. It has failed to curb gang activity and violence in our communities and in our prisons. It has failed to limit children’s access to drugs. It has failed to protect communities from petty and property crimes related to drug addiction. It has burdened our criminal justice system and healthcare system, at great cost to taxpayers. It has stigmatized addiction and endangered the lives of individuals who use drugs. It has contributed to the pain and helplessness endured by friends and family members of individuals who use drugs. Prohibition has particularly detrimental impacts on racialized and poor communities, with black and Indigenous communities suffering disproportionately.
As you know, in the past few years there has been a staggering rise in incidents of drug poisonings due to street drugs tainted by fentanyl and carfentanil. Drug-related deaths are at record levels.
The opioid crisis, which is impacting almost every community in Canada, has brought urgency and growing acceptance to the call for drug decriminalization. BC’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is advocating for drug decriminalization and a safe supply of opiates to individuals who use drugs. In July, BC Premier John Horgan made a formal request to the federal government to decriminalize possession of illegal drugs for personal use. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police also recently issued a strong statement in support of decriminalization. More than 160 civil society organizations from across the country, including the Canadian Association of Social Workers, the Canadian Nurses Association, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Pivot Legal Society, Black Indigenous Harm Reduction Alliance, Amnesty International Canada, and the Canadian AIDS Society have joined the call. Even UN agencies and the World Health Organization are calling for decriminalization, because this crisis knows no borders.
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) is a US based organization that was founded in 2002 as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. LEAP is made up of current and retired police officers, border patrol officers, judges, prison guards, prosecutors, parole officers, coroners and others in criminal justice professions. The organization also includes members from Canada. Senator Larry Campbell, who was a coroner before becoming the mayor of Vancouver, was a well-known speaker for LEAP. I have included an infographic from LEAP’s website below my signature that illustrates 19 problems in today’s society that are rooted in the War on Drugs. Amongst these problems are street and prison gangs, tainted drugs, overdoses, wasted tax dollars, homelessness, unsafe communities, prison overcrowding and poor community-police relations.
LEAP’s principles are all worth reading, but I will highlight three:
LEAP believes that adult drug abuse is a public health problem and not a law enforcement matter.
LEAP does not promote the use of drugs and is deeply concerned about the extent of drug abuse and drug-related violence worldwide. However, both drug abuse and violence flourish under drug prohibition, just as they did during alcohol prohibition.
LEAP believes that individuals suffering from drug addiction who seek help should receive support, including drug treatment. LEAP argue that the cost of expanding such services could be financed with a fraction of the criminal justice savings from ending drug prohibition.
LEAP’s website also states the following: “Law enforcement officers often find the bodies of drug users who overdosed before they were able to quit. Officers know that many drug users relapse because, after drug treatment, they still struggle with mental and physical health problems, homelessness, and unemployment. When drug users relapse, they usually lose access to the services that they need to stabilize their lives and successfully quit drugs. As a result, many officers support harm reduction programs, which help drug users survive their addictions and stabilize their lives, rather than demanding that they quit before offering help.”
It’s clear that Canada urgently needs a new approach to dealing with the problems of illicit drugs, drug addiction and related issues. I believe that in developing Canada’s new policies for dealing with these problems, we should end the War on Drugs and adopt a policy of legalization and regulation of currently illegal drugs. But whether we go that far or not, the first steps must be to decriminalize drug possession for personal use, and to guarantee a safe supply of opiates to individuals who use drugs.
Guaranteeing a safe supply should include providing safe drugs, clean syringes, and safe consumption sites with nurses and social workers on site. These steps must be accompanied by wrap-around social services to help individuals remain engaged with essential health, mental health, and housing services, and to have consistent and open avenues to recovery from addiction.
It is my understanding that effective decriminalization of drugs for personal use can be done by the Minister of Health granting a nation-wide exemption from this offence under section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This can be done after the Food and Drug regulations covering illicit drugs in Section J are removed through an order in council.
With so many organizations across the political spectrum calling for decriminalization, and the opioid crisis raging out of control, now is the time for the federal government to take action for real and sustained change.
I would be happy to discuss this further with you.
The Honourable David Lametti, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Justice
The Honourable Bill Blair, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness