Pubdate: Thu, 21 Sep 2017
Source: Cape Breton Post (CN NS)
Copyright: 2017 Cape Breton Post
Page: A10


NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh's recent promise that, as prime
minister, he would move quickly to drop criminal penalties for
possession or purchase of small amounts of all drugs will no doubt
seem radical to many.

Broad-based decriminalization would beast ark reversal after decades
of increasingly punitive policies. And this would certainly add a
layer of complication to the already complicated task of legalizing
marijuana, which Ottawa and the provinces are struggling to do by next
summer. The Trudeau government' s current position on
decriminalization is understandable: Ottawa already has its hands full
with pot.

But Singh's idea, while politically bold (none of his New Democratic
rivals would go so far), reflects a view that is relatively
uncontroversial among public health experts.

The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International
Red Cross, the Canadian Public Health Association, the medical health
officers of British Columbia, Vancouver, Toronto, not to mention many
front-line health workers - they all agree: treating drug users like
criminals is a costly, dangerous mistake. And as Canada's epidemic of
opioid overdoses deepens, this chorus is growing louder and more urgent.

It's time Ottawa listened.

In Canada, as elsewhere, the long tradition of criminalizing drug use
has backfired. If the goal of the war on drugs has been to reduce the
use of psychoactive substances and the harm these drugs cause, to
improve public health and public safety, then it has been an abject

If on the other hand the goal has been to drive up the cost of
policing, contribute to a national crisis of court delays, compound
racial and class inequities and unnecessarily criminalize and deepen
the suffering of people living with physical and mental illness, then
it has been a great success.

The Trudeau government seems mostly to understand this. Many of the
arguments it has used to sell its welcome pot legislation clearly
apply, too, to decriminalizing possession of all drugs.

As part of its response to Canada's growing opioid epidemic, the
Trudeau government has rightly approved a number of safe-injection
sites. These are effectively zones of decriminalization, in which
users are given access to sterile equipment as well as to medical
treatment and counselling, without the threat of arrest.

Safe-injection sites save lives. But each approval is slow and
controversial, in no small part because of the stigma created by our
current approach to drug policy. As a result, such sites remain few
and far between and too many drug users continue to suffer and die
needlessly, hiding from the state that should be their best hope for

Singh's idea is just that - an idea, not a policy. The past year of
pot debate has been a loud reminder that details and implementation
are hard and they matter. That will be truer still for a more
ambitious approach.

Nonetheless, most people who have examined the issue closely agree
that a more ambitious approach is necessary. More than 2,400 people
died last year as the result of overdoses on opioids alone. That
number is likely to rise this year. The temptation will be strong to
put this big, inevitably controversial idea off for another day, but
the urgency of our drug problem and the inadequacy of our current
solutions cannot be denied.
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MAP posted-by: Matt