Victoria, BC June 23, 2018
Just this week, the Government of Canada legalized cannabis.This is a welcome, positive, and long-overdue step.
In listening over the past year to the discussion and debate about the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana, it is apparent to me that the arguments in favour of this measure are overwhelming: it helps with harm reduction; it eliminates the criminal element; it provides safety of product; it protects children and vulnerable Canadians; it unclogs our criminal justice system to deal with real crime; it treats addiction and substance use as a health issue, not a criminal or moral one.
However, it is patently obvious that the arguments in favour of cannabis legalization can be applied with equal force to all drugs. In fact, because other drugs do and have the capacity to cause death, I think the arguments are even stronger for legalizing and properly regulating all drugs.
But this is not just a theoretical position – fortunately, we have real examples and hard evidence to back it up. In 1999, there was a drug crisis in Portugal. Use of hard drugs was rampant and approximately one per cent of their population reported a drug addiction. So in 2001, Portugal decided to treat the possession and use of small quantities of drugs as a public health issue, not a criminal one. They decriminalized the use of all drugs, even heroin and cocaine, and unleashed a major public health campaign to tackle addiction. Though possession is still legally prohibited, violations are treated as administrative infractions and removed completely from the criminal realm. That means getting caught using or possessing drugs could result in a small fine or a referral to treatment where appropriate, but not jail time or a criminal record.
The crisis in Portugal soon stabilized, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. Portugal’s mortality rate from drugs is now four times lower than the European average, the number of teenagers who have experimented with drugs has fallen, and the number of people in treatment has increased. 90 percent of public money spent fighting drugs is now channeled toward health-care goals — just 10 per cent is spent on enforcement.
In contrast, in Canada, 70 percent of funding spent combating drug use is spent on enforcement. We have the second highest rates of cannabis use among young people in the world and an opioid overdose crisis that is staggering. 4,000 Canadians lost their lives to overdoses in 2017, up from 3,000 in 2016. We're on track in 2018 to exceed that death toll, with as many as 6,000 Canadians dying from overdoses.
In British Columbia, overdose deaths spiked this March, marking the province's second-highest monthly total in history according to the BC Coroner’s Service.
At the Liberal Party's recent policy convention, delegates voted overwhelmingly to adopt Jagmeet Singh and the NDP’s position on decriminalization and medical regulation as a means of responding to drug overdose deaths.
A coalition of 200 family, friends, organizations, policy experts (including former Liberal leader Bob Rae) impacted by the overdose crisis wrote an open letter urging the Liberals to:
“Be the progressive government you promised to be, choosing human rights and evidence-based policy over ideological relics. We need you to listen to our voices as we call for the essential next step: decriminalization. The example of Portugal and other European countries illustrates that this policy works. We ask you to prevent thousands of more unnecessary deaths by supporting this resolution.”
However, both the Liberal Minister of Health and the Prime Minister responded by unequivocally ruling out action.
Here’s what Liberal Health Minister Petipas-Taylor said this week when confronted with the fact that 4000 Canadians - a new record - died last year from overdoses: “By decriminalizing drugs, we’re certainly not going to fix the problem that’s on the streets right now,” she said.
Instead, she pointed out that in May, Ottawa announced that opioids dispensed in Canada will soon have to carry stickers that warn the drugs can cause dependence, addiction and overdoses. Talk about ignoring the evidence. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.
The Liberal government has also refused to launch an investigation or initiate legal action to recover damages from opioid manufacturers for the tragic consequences and public costs of this crisis.
Instead, federal government has left victims to seek their own recourse through a private class-action lawsuit. This resulted in a proposed settlement of only $20 million, with a paltry $2 million allocated to all provincial and federal health authorities in Canada. Thankfully, this settlement was rejected because no steps were taken to ensure that past and potential future public health care costs were identified.
Imagine - we have experienced over 10,000 deaths and spent over a billion dollars in public health costs from opioids - and yet our federal government has not so much as launched an investigation into opioid manufacturer practices who themselves have earned billions of dollars in profits from these dangerous and highly addictive products.
This stands in contrast to aggressive action from U.S. authorities, which has led to almost $700 million in damages and criminal convictions of opioid manufacturer executives for improper marketing - with many more lawsuits pending in their courts.
What message does it send when thousands of Canadians die from overdoses and our government fails to seek justice?
What does it say when our government refuses even to consider the demonstrated successes of other nations in reducing drug use and deaths?
What conclusion are we to draw when our federal government flatly refuses to declare the opioid overdose crisis a national public health emergency - even though provinces have and opioid overdose death is now the number one killer of men between the ages of 30 and 39?
We owe it to the memory of those lost to this crisis to hold those who profited to account. We need to stop treating the most vulnerable members of our society like criminals. We need to treat substance use and addiction for what they are: health issues, and social justice issues, not criminal and moral ones.
We need significant, new federal money for addiction prevention, education, treatment, and harm reduction - across all modalities, from abstinence to 12 step to opioid substitution, tailored for every demographic, from youth to women to Indigenous Canadians. And treatment must be available as a fully insured service provided by our public health care system so that individuals and families can get timely access at quality facilities regardless of income or ability to pay.
My friends – you have felt the pain of substance use like no others. You have experienced the frustration, the powerlessness, the heartache, the grief that only those who have lost a loved one to the disease of addiction can know.
I myself lost my father when I was 20 years old to a methadone overdose. I know, feel and share your pain.
Your courage to show up, to share your experiences, to speak up - to demand more in the knowledge that we can do better - is in service of the greatest legacy we can pay to those we have lost: to do everything in our power to prevent the avoidable, unnecessary death of another mother’s child to addiction.
Thank you for your concern for others. Thank you for your commitment to act.
Thank you for your willingness to use your pain in service to others.
Together – as we just did for cannabis this week – we will prevail in making drug policy in Canada more rational, more effective and more compassionate.
Don Davies, MP | député Vancouver Kingsway, Critic for Health | Porte-parole du NPD en matière de santé, New Democratic Party | Nouveau Parti démocratique