Canada’s Liberals Are Refusing to Deal With the Opioid Crisis

Canada’s New Democratic Party has introduced a new bill to decriminalize drug possession and improve harm-reduction measures. Passing it would need the support of the Liberals, who have thus far proved unwilling to fight for reform.

British Columbia, a province that has long struggled with drug poisoning, experienced its highest-ever opioid overdose count last year. (Todd Korol/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In Canada, a New Democratic Party (NDP) member of Parliament has introduced a private members’ bill to decriminalize drug possession. Gord Johns introduced Bill C-216, which was seconded by NDP MP Rachel Blaney in February. If passed, the new piece of legislation would seek to expand harm reduction and improve drug treatment efforts across the country. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the NDP, also supports the bill.

Both Johns and Blaney represent ridings in British Columbia, a province that has long struggled with a drug-poisoning crisis. Last year, BC experienced its highest opioid overdose count. Over 2,200 people lost their lives — a jump of 26 percent over 2020.

Drugs should indeed be decriminalized with an eye strictly focused on legalization. I’ve covered this terrain before in writing and on a podcast. The case for decriminalization was strong before the pandemic and it is even stronger now. As death tolls mount, local governments continue to squander resources on policing and incarceration. Meanwhile, the failed policy of prohibition continues to destroy lives. Decriminalization is supported by the United Nations and its World Health Organization, Canada’s police chiefs, and many others.

As I wrote in the fall of 2020 for the Washington Post, the pandemic has exacerbated the drug-poisoning crisis, tearing apart communities and creating yet another challenge for people who use drugs. Currently, some jurisdictions are pursuing better drug policies, including safe supply and expanded access to treatment for those who want it. But the scale of the problem means that these small steps are far from adequate.

In a federation such as Canada’s, sound drug policy is needed throughout the country. An inconsistent patchwork of policies across jurisdictions that fail to meet the needs of people who use drugs is unacceptable. Even if some municipal and provincial undertakings serve as precedents, test cases, or lessons on what to do or not to do, federal leadership is essential. It is the only way to successfully decriminalize drugs and convene provinces, advocacy organizations, and people to facilitate the adoption of best-policy practices in each province and territory.

Provincial leadership on this effort is welcome, but it is imperfect and inadequate. In July of 2021, the government of British Columbia launched a policy to “expand access to prescribed safer supply.” This measure is one item in a package of efforts that also includes the provision of more safe consumption sites. In November of the same year, BC also applied to the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs, as have the cities of Vancouver and Toronto.

British Columbia’s plan was criticized by members of the province’s Core Planning Table (CPT). They say the plan does not go far enough and decry “the last-minute inclusion of a low ‘cumulative threshold quantity,’ exclusion of people under 19,” and reliance on police officers to provide health and social referrals. They note that these were “changes made without consultation or the support of the vast majority of CPT members.”

A core takeaway of the BC initiatives is that people who use drugs and their communities must be at the table, in every jurisdiction, when local and national legislatures draft policy. Speaking from the perspective of an advocate and community member who has been waiting far too long for better policy, Garth Mullins, a CPT member, addressed the flaws in BC’s decriminalization plan:

The first meeting on drug decriminalization I went to was in August 1998. We know this stuff. We know how much dope people use and possess. Decriminalization is about cops getting out of the lives of drug users. Period. But when governments change the fine print and insist on lower possession thresholds, half of us get left behind. In BC, that means half of the one hundred thousand with “opioid use disorder” will still be criminalized, harassed, cuffed, and jailed. Our drugs — and our liberty — will still be seized.

Whatever may happen in the provinces, no policy program in Canada will be sufficiently robust until the federal government ends its long and destructive war on drugs. The first step requires the acknowledgment that the state ought not to criminalize, and indeed ought to legalize, drug use. For that to happen, the Liberal government will have to show some political backbone. As fond as Justin Trudeau and his cabinet are of evidence-based policymaking — or perhaps fond of claiming they are — they have failed to reach the conclusion that experts have arrived at: criminalizing drugs and drug users is bad, harmful, wasteful policy.

Without the support of the Liberals, Johns’s decriminalization bill is unlikely to pass, even if it does serve important agenda-setting and advocacy functions. Indeed, the NDP has been here before. In the spring of 2021, NDP MP Don Davies, who also represents a BC riding, tabled a similar bill. It did not pass. Few private members’ bills do. The work continues nonetheless, but as it does, lives are being needlessly lost and communities are being traumatized.

Momentum is gaining in the struggle to liberate drug users. In time, drugs will be decriminalized in Canada — perhaps even legalized. The Liberals should support Johns’ private members’ bill and get it passed in this Parliament. The only reason to kill time on the issue is cynical political calculation or a stubborn commitment to a failed war-on-drugs ideology. Neither is an acceptable reason to delay. Lives depend upon swift action.