December 11, 2018

EDITORIAL

With legal cannabis now available across the nation, many Canadians are still scratching their heads at how the provincial governments have implemented new the law.

While it’s still too soon to call the legalization of recreational cannabis a success, there are already some Canadians calling for blanket decriminalization of all drugs.

Earlier this summer, the boards of health in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver joined together in calling for national decriminalization of most currently illegal psychoactive substances, a position mirrored by the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA).

In a policy statement from November 2017, the CPHA recommends a “public health” approach to decriminalization, with a focus on evidence-informed policy and preventing injury or death. This modernized approach is based on the individual rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as United Nations policy, which called for widespread decriminalization. The World Health Organization has supported this stance.

Obviously, these kind of drastic changes can’t take place overnight, and the brunt of the responsibility is handled by the province or local governments, not at the federal level. So while the Trudeau Liberals went ahead and approved recreational cannabis, the provinces were left scrambling with little to no framework to base new legislation on.

This was among one of the many reasons that the Senate initially rejected the proposed amendments to the criminal code to legalize cannabis (Bill C-45), sending it back to the House of Commons for revisions based on concerns surrounding production, sale and criminal matters.

Some municipalities could vote to restrict or ban the use of cannabis in their districts, though with legalization on Oct. 17 and municipal elections on Oct. 22 of this October, it could be too late for them to act.

While the support for legal cannabis had been increasing in Canada, one must wonder if the complications of rushing the process so thoroughly will leave more headache than high.

On the other side of the debate, attitudes have shifted from fear and loathing to that of sympathy and understanding.

In Vancouver, which has had safe injection sites for over a decade, numerous studies have shown a reduction in the spread of HIV and deaths by overdose. Detractors of these programs will often throw conjecture about growing crime rates or addiction, without realizing that these issues are never so simple, and are often tied to other factors such as homelessness or other marginalized groups.

The idea of cannabis as a gateway drug has also been undermined by many studies highlighting that the correlation between cannabis and hard drug use is not always causation. The majority of people who use cannabis do not go on to become users of “harder” substances.

Especially for our neighbours to the south, where cannabis remains a restricted schedule I drug, the historical myths and vested interests in pushing pharmaceutical drugs hinders the progress of medical or decriminalized cannabis.

In Europe, some nations such as Portugal have gone so far as to decriminalize all drugs for “individual consumption,” which is considered a 10-day personal supply. One key detail here is that drugs are not legal, merely decriminalized; selling and trafficking is still illegal in Portugal, and can still carry a hefty prison sentence.

In Canada, many of the projected figures from naysayers of decriminalization did not come to be. Statistics from Vancouver’s safe injection sites show that infection rates and deaths are down, and drug use among young persons and injection drug users has also lowered.

Another key detail is the implementation of programs like the“Commissions for Dissuasion of Drug Addicts,” where a person caught by police using drugs will have 72 hours to appear before a committee consisting of two medical and one legal professionals. This committee will advise the subject and can impose penalties such as fines, community service or denial of public benefits.

It has been clear for years that keeping hard drugs under the cover of criminalization and prohibition does more harm than good. In order to create a healthier environment for those who may inevitably become drug users, it is necessary to focus on education and rehabilitation – not only on preventative measures.

Decriminalization would reduce the stigma surrounding drug users, and resources currently allocated to penalizing minor drug offenders could be used to fund public health and social development programs to assist and rehabilitate drug users.

While it may not be an attractive stance for a politician, the current system is broken and is not suited to integrate or rehabilitate drug users into society. Moving forward, it will be necessary to fundamentally shift attitudes toward drug use from aversion and indifference to support and community cooperation.

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