Pubdate: Fri, 01 Sep 2017
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Authors: Jennifer Peirce, Claudia Stoicescu, Meaghan Thumath, Ayden 
Scheim and Jamie Forrest
Page: 7


The legalization of cannabis and rapid scale up of
supervised-injection sites - as well as community-led initiatives,
such as the site set up by Overdose Prevention Ottawa in Lowertown
this month - have thrust Canada back into the limelight of global drug
policy. Against the backdrop of a national overdose crisis and a
fracturing of global consensus on drug prohibition, these are welcome
changes. Yet they only begin to chip away at the drug policy
challenges facing Canada.

Canada's policy community remains divided about how best to tackle the
overdose crisis. As the death toll mounts, should we invest more in
law and order approaches, treatment, harm reduction or some

A new report published in July offers recommendations to begin
addressing these challenges. The report is the result of two days of
deliberations by more than 200 experts who met in Ottawa in April
2017, as part of Canada's Drug Futures Forum. The forum deliberately
convened groups with diverse views, including police, frontline
harm-reduction workers, doctors and nurses, corrections staff, judges
and lawyers, public servants, researchers and people who use drugs.

The consensus was clear: We all need to think of problematic substance
use as a health, rather than a criminal justice, issue. The new
Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy, launched in 2016, which
replaced the Harper-era National Anti-Drug Strategy, takes a more
public health-oriented approach and enables supervised-consumption
sites. But the continuing criminalization of people who use drugs does
little to reduce drug use or crime and puts funding into the justice
system at the expense of treatment and prevention. The forum proposed
major shifts in resources out of the courtroom and into the health and
social sectors.

The toughest question is how, especially as the United States under
Donald Trump is doubling down on punitive tactics. Even inside Canada,
dismantling the institutional machinery of prohibition is like turning
a giant ship. But other countries have done it: after decriminalizing
drugs and scaling up treatment 15 years ago, Portugal has seen a
dramatic drop in overdose deaths and unneeded arrests.

First, the report calls for meaningful consultation with people who
use drugs on all drug policy proposals. Though many argue for rapid
decriminalization of all drugs, the report notes that this is not a
panacea and unintended consequences are inevitable; thus a commission
should map out a thoughtful pathway toward regulation.

Even under current laws, the government can reduce the harms of
criminalization, which have disproportionately affected Indigenous and
black Canadians. Key steps include: a process for pardoning past
cannabis convictions, expanding diversion program eligibility
criteria, repealing mandatory minimum sentences and using alternative
sentencing options.

Canada is a global leader in harm reduction. Yet, other measures, like
distribution of safer crack kits to prevent the spread of infectious
disease, medication-assisted therapy (the "gold standard" treatment
for opioid dependence) and drug-testing for recreational users, need
urgent scale up.

Some Canadians remain skeptical about these measures, in part because
they challenge the traditional metrics of drug policy "success." The
report suggests the establishment of a national Drug Policy
Observatory to analyze data on drug use and law enforcement patterns.
Success in drug policy should be measured in health and equity
outcomes, not kilos of cocaine interdicted or number of arrests.

Canada has a real opportunity to lead internationally on a more humane
and evidence-based approach to drug policy. As the first G20 nation to
tackle the task of regulating cannabis at the federal level, Canada
can lead in finding constructive solutions to tensions between federal
policy and international treaties that currently criminalize drugs.
Canada should make progressive drug policy a real element of its
foreign aid and international security strategies.

The overdose crisis in Canada is urgent and tragic - but not
inevitable. This report demonstrates that even so-called adversaries
in drug policy debates agree on major next steps. With bold
policy-making, we can heal the scars of the war on drugs in Canada and

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Jennifer Peirce, Claudia Stoicescu, Meaghan Thumath, Ayden Scheim and 
Jamie Forrest are members of the Organizing Committee for Canada's Drug 
Futures Forum.
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