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Alternatives to Canada’s policies against criminalized drugs

Expert panelists advocate for decriminalization, among other policies for treating substance use disorder
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An expert panel hosted by the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) chapters at U of T and Ryerson University discussed the impact and alternatives to Canada’s prohibitory drug policies on October 9.

The speakers debated the effects of what they dubbed Canada’s “war on drugs” on its vulnerable populations, key events in its history, the shortfalls of its current drug policy, and alternatives to treating substance use disorder.

The opioid crisis

Susan Shepherd, Strategic Support Director at Toronto Public Health, discussed the need to treat the opioid crisis as a public health problem, as opposed to a criminal justice approach, and to consult people in the community.

Toronto Public Health conducted two community sessions and 20 interviews with people asking how well they thought the current system was working and whether the federal government should decriminalize personal use of opioids.

The responses were generally in favour of decriminalization and respondents agreed that the system is “broken,” though they also stressed action beyond decriminalization. Respondents also generally agreed that the government should continue to prosecute those involved in producing and selling illicit drugs.

The history of Canada’s drug policies

Matt Johnson, a Harm Reduction Outreach Program Coordinator at Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, spoke about the history of Canada’s drug policy, starting with the Opium Act of 1908, which he saw as the beginning of Canada’s harsh drug policies.

A turning point in Canada’s approach to drugs was the formation of LeDain Commission in 1969, which published four reports on the role that the government should play in drug regulation. Its 1972 report suggested the decriminalization and eventual legalization of cannabis would be the best course of action — a proposal that then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau refused to implement.

In the present day, Johnson said that the future of drug policy reform in Canada does not look optimistic, as the two main party leaders support the status quo of criminalizing opioids.

He further stressed that the criminalization of drugs does not exist in a vacuum, as racism, colonization, homophobia, transphobia, and other systems of oppression are deeply intertwined  and need to be addressed alongside drug policies.

The impact on Indigenous peoples

Michelle Sault — Indigenous consultant, lead facilitator, and project strategist for the Toronto Indigenous Overdose Strategy — focused her talk on Indigenous issues. She spoke about her own experience developing the Overdose Strategy and some of the experiences that she heard from Indigenous people.

“[The Overdose Strategy] was more comprehensive, research based, and the strategy itself that I engaged in was more of a facilitated process which is both a session, and an invitation to share advice on what it is that Indigenous people need or want,” said Sault.

A 2002 study at the University of Washington showed that personal health is determined by a balance between trauma and buffers. When trauma outweighs one’s buffers, it is expected that they will experience worse health outcomes, and experience harmful substance use. Cultivating buffers, including cultural identity, community, and family connection can help mitigate the effects of trauma. 

This especially applies to Indigenous peoples in Canada, many of whom have experienced intergenerational trauma as a result of forced assimilation through residential schools. A 2018 survey showed that survivors of residential schools and their descendants face poorer health outcomes. They were more likely to have considered suicide at some point in their lives, and had higher rates of binge drinking and opioid use. 

Sault described many of the testimonials from these sessions and said that many people started using drugs because of personal trauma, poverty, homelessness, or sexual abuse. Sault added that many of the people making decisions related to drugs are disconnected with whom it is they are making the policy for, especially Indigenous peoples.

She further stressed the importance of challenging colonial constructs when discussing conditions such as addiction. 

Editor’s Note (November 9, 4:01 pm): Due to space constraint, the print version of this article omitted several concluding paragraphs and indicated that the full text would be available in the online version of this article. This article has now been updated to include these concluding paragraphs. The Varsity regrets the delay.