How Would Canada Deal With Decriminalizing Illegal Drugs?
- Kate Pindera
- 19 Feb 2021
Decriminalizing illegal drugs has been an ongoing topic of national conversation. In 2020, Canada’s police chiefs have expressed support for the decriminalization of personal drug possession and the use of illegal drugs. Drug reform groups and health agencies such as the Canadian Public Health Association have voiced out congruence in this notion. The question is, would it bear positive effects on Canadian citizens and its overall drug use?
Let’s take a closer look at this discussion.
How Close is Canada on Decriminalizing Illegal Drugs?
In August 2020, guidelines issued by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) urged prosecutors to carry on non-criminal sanctions for simple drug possession. Additionally, Mylene Drouin, the director of Montreal’s public health department is in favour of a report by Toronto’s Board of Health in pushing the federal government to decriminalize all known illegal drugs. The said report calls for a health and treatment-oriented drug policy to replace a crime-driven one as an effective response to drug-related issues in many Canadian cities.
Vancouver Police Chief, Adam Palmer, expressed in a report published by Global News, that the current “enforcement-based approach” for possession of all types of drugs can be replaced with a healthcare approach that diverts users from the criminal justice system.
The healthcare approach is highly looked upon, with deliberations happening all across the country. The notion was prompted after a report by Health Canada was published, stating that 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdose in 2017. This includes 303 opioid overdose deaths in Toronto alone.
With all of these announcements and statements from Canadian officials, one country that has decriminalized illegal drugs has been the topic of comparison, and that is Portugal.
What Canada can Learn From Portugal’s Decriminalization of Illegal Drugs
In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize all drugs due to its worsening country-wide drug problem. While many countries view Portugal as the role model for decriminalization, there are some pros and cons surrounding the matter. The effects could happen to any country that follows suit, including Canada.
Here are some key factors that happened after Portugal’s decriminalization of illegal drugs:
- The black market remained and drug traffickers are still jailed for intent to sell
- Drug prices would drop and consumption would increase
- Addicts still faced legal sanctions
- Portuguese police are still allowed to seize drugs and detain users
- Drug-related deaths have gone down due to treatment and recovery programs rather than decriminalization
Since the decriminalization of illegal drugs in Portugal, deaths and infection rates have gone down, as well as bloodborne infections (HIV) from sharing needles. In 2001, 80 people died from drug-related deaths, and in 2012, the count was down to 16. It is also worth mentioning that new HIV cases among drug users went down, from 1,016 in 2001 to only 56 in 2012.
In Portugal, drug use has not skyrocketed as there is “essentially no relationship between the punitiveness of a country’s drug laws and the rates of drug use,” as stated by Transform, a drug reform group in their analysis of drug use among Portuguese citizens.
As an assumption, these positive effects can potentially happen in Canada if decriminalization of illegal drugs were to take effect, as it will urge users to seek health centre-sanctioned paraphernalia instead of sharing unsanitary items.
Can The Effects of Decriminalized Drugs Benefit Canadians?
According to the authors of a study published in the British Journal of Criminology, the results that happened in Portugal can be considered as a model for other nations that aim to provide less punitive and more integrated responses to drug use.
In Vancouver, the centre of Canada’s current opioid overdose crisis, the police force has already endorsed a “public health” approach to addiction. The approach rarely pursues drug charges to offenders, unless it is connected to a more serious criminal offence.
It is similar to the approach laid out by Portugal’s Commission for Drug Dissuasion for addicts, wherein two medical professionals and a legal professional determine the level of addiction and recommend the suitable treatment, or minimal penalties for the offender.
The penalties could range from:
- Community service
- Denial of public benefits
- Orders to avoid certain places or people
Portugal’s national drug coordinator, João Goulão, met with Canadian officials in 2016 to discuss drug law reforms. He stated that decriminalization of illegal drugs would “allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall.” He added that this reform has allowed addicts to seek treatment “without fear.” If decriminalization would happen in Canada, this is the most beneficial effect for Canadians suffering from substance abuse.
The Current State of the Use of Illegal Drugs in Canada
According to the federal government, the country’s opioid toxicity death rate during the first half of 2020 was 14.6 per 10,000, proving to be the highest since 2016.
Meanwhile, Canadians charged with drug possession of non-cocaine, non-heroin drugs more than tripled between 2008 and 2018, as reported by Statistics Canada, whereas people charged with heroin possession quadrupled.
While there could be many benefits surrounding decriminalized drugs in Canada, it seems like it will not solve all problems. Many are still using different types of drugs, with opioids responsible for most drug-related deaths in the country in 2018.
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