Opinion: Canadian decriminalization efforts are not enough to produce results

Aug 18, 2022

In a recent opinion article published by Talking Drugs, an online platform provided by the International Drug Policy Consortium, news and analysis on drug policy, the author, André Gomes discussed the limitations of Canada’s recent drug decriminalization efforts.

In an attempt to reduce the climbing numbers of overdose-related deaths in British Columbia, the federal government created a three-year exemption for the province from the Controlled Substances Act, decriminalizing the possession of specific illicit drugs.

Specifically, according to the exemption, criminal charges will be waived for the possession of a cumulative total of up to 2.5 grams of several opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. In addition, the possession of any amount of any other drug not covered by the exemption remains illegal, and any drug not in this list remains illegal. However, subsequently, the C-216 bill proposed by the New Democratic Party (NDP) for nationwide decriminalization and retroactive expungement of possession offences was defeated in Parliament, with 71 votes for and 248 against.

Furthermore, the movement for the decriminalization of all drugs has been met with significant political resistance, including the ruling Liberal party (of which Prime Minister Trudeau is the leader) and the Conservatives.

Alberta’s provincial government has also opposed calls for drug decriminalization, while its capital city, Edmonton, has called for more efforts to reduce overdose-related deaths and for the decriminalization of small quantities of illicit drugs. Likewise, the provincial government of Saskatchewan has been opposed to changing its drug laws, while the police board and mayor of Saskatchewan’s capital have suggested implementation of decriminalization as a harm reduction measure.

“Real decriminalization means getting the police out of our lives, and that’s a big deal,” Mullins said. “A lot of us have to use in secret, going in and out of jail lowers your tolerance… You’re actually more likely to overdose if you’ve just been released from jail.”

According to Garth Mullins, host of the Crackdown Podcast and organizer for the activist group Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the success of the three-year decriminalization trial in British Columbia is limited: “Not only is it geographically bounded, it’s also substantially bounded: it’s a low threshold, doesn’t include any safe supply or expunging records or anything else,” he said.

Mullins highlighted the fact that the cumulative thresholds are not representative of drug use, since VANDU data demonstrates that drug-using habits have increased, and the thresholds used would still criminalize large-drug using populations. He added that despite being a key organization advocating for harm reduction, VANDU was not seriously involved in provincial and federal drug policymaking: “We weren’t at the decision-making table, but we were consulted at a ‘kids table’; so they didn’t really listen to us in a lot of the important stuff… The federal government didn’t really listen.”

The level of organization in drug policy activism will be a true indicator for future success, noted Mullins. “Our level of organization and willingness to use militant tactics like civil disobedience, that’s what gets things done in drug policy.”