Even as Canada's Conservative federal government attempts to drag the country back into the last century with its drug and crime policies, a new drug reform umbrella group has emerged to fight for smart, sensible, evidence-based alternatives. The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) unveiled itself and its new web site late last month.
Tuesday, the House of Commons approved a draconian omnibus anti-crime bill, C-10, that would, among other things, create mandatory minimum sentences for growing as few as six marijuana plants and for manufacturing small amounts of hashish or hash oil. The Tories were able to shove the bill through despite broad opposition from across Canada after winning an outright parliamentary majority in the last elections.
Reformers say they will be unable to stop the bill's passage, although they will likely challenge it in the courts, which have proven friendlier to innovative drug policy reforms. The Supreme Court of Canada earlier this year blocked the federal government from shutting down Insite, Vancouver's safe injection site. It is in this contested terrain of federal drug policy, as well at the provincial level, that the coalition seeks to intervene.
"We're letting the world know we're here and we're a coalition that wants to grow," said Macpherson. "We’re working toward trying to change the paradigm and the direction of the federal government and introducing a public health and human rights perspective on drug policy in Canada."
The coalition went public last week, marking its coming out with a press conference in Vancouver, a Macpherson op-ed in the Vancouver Sun, and joining with the British Columbia Health Officers' Council (HOC) in releasing an HOC report, Public Health Perspectives for Regulating Psychoactive Substances, which describes how public health oriented regulation of alcohol, tobacco, prescription and illegal substances can better reduce the harms that result both from substance use and substance regulation than current approaches.
"This paper highlights the large number of needless and preventable deaths, hospitalizations and human suffering consequent to our current approaches," said Dr. Richard Mathias of the HOC. "The Health Officers’ Council is inviting feedback on its ideas and requesting that organizations and individuals join with us in a call for immediate changes to put the public’s health first."
"The story about the emperor's new clothes is replayed time and again by governments unwilling to own up to realities," said Robert Holmes, head of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, as he saluted the report. "Public health professionals in B.C. are right to point out that our current chaotic and contradictory drug laws and policies need to be reviewed against scientific evidence of what works to reduce consumption, social harms, and costs," he said.
"People routinely get put in jail for conduct related to active drug addictions, but the criminal justice system is hardly a surrogate for medical care. It is plain that we have inadequate treatment and detox available for people with addictions to help them cope, recover or quit," noted Holmes. "By making cannabis taboo, our society both prohibits and makes more alluring its use. It is, of course, widely used. But instead of recognizing that and taxing it like tobacco and liquor products, with the tax revenue going to the cost of education and care, we leave the massive profits of this industry to organized crime and leave taxpayers with the bill for police efforts to contain it."
"This report is important because it's not about which drugs are legal and which are not," Macpherson said. "We need to look at all drugs through a public health lens. We're trying to get beyond 'good drug, bad drug' and move toward finding a regulatory system that minimizes the harm and maximizes the benefits of these substances."
The provincial health officers' report is also noteworthy because it actually addresses the benefits of drug use, Macpherson said.
"It takes courageous public health doctors to dare to talk about the benefits of drug use," he said. "We all know that drugs can be beneficial from our use of alcohol to relax or become more social or our use of pharmaceuticals to kill pain, but you're not allowed to talk about that in the drug policy arena. It's all about reducing harm, but we need to acknowledge that drug use has its benefits."
More broadly, the CDPC is working toward:
- A health, social and human rights approach to substance use;
- The important role harm reduction approaches play;
- Removing the stigma of criminalization for people who use drugs;
- Moving beyond the current approach to drug prohibition;
- A national dialogue on drug policy for Canada.
"We'll advocate for a comprehensive public health and human rights approach," said Macpherson. "It's not just about health, but also looks at social and human rights issues. And it's not just about ending the drug war, but to start talking about alternatives to the failed war on drugs."
The CDPC sees itself as facilitating the dialog, Macpherson said. "A lot of change in drug policy requires political leadership, but politicians also need support in taking those courageous steps, so that when you bring people together to talk reasonably in an informed way and bring the evidence to bear, you can then move forward. They can see that despite their fears about safe injection sites or cannabis regulation, those are actually sound ways to go that make their communities safer in the long run than the way we're going now," he said. "We're trying to position ourselves as the organization than can help find the answers through our expertise and by looking at what's worked and what hasn't in other jurisdictions, and by convening people who care about these issues to look for solutions that actually work instead of the same old same old."
And despite Conservative domination at the federal level, there is still plenty that can be done, both in Ottawa and in the provinces, Macpherson said. "There is a lot that can be done around health and harm reduction because most of the health approaches emanate from provincial health ministries," he said. "Harm reduction can also be done locally by municipalities, for example, by making the criminalization of drug users a low priority for police."
While any decision to end Canada's drug war will have to come from Ottawa, Macpherson said, the provinces can still move forward themselves. "We can expand the number of safe injection sites and other harm reduction programs, and we can move toward a more comprehensive public health approach. They're doing that in some provinces," he said.
Given the obstinacy and recalcitrance of the government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, the CDPC certainly has its work cut out for it, but there couldn't be a group more suited for the task.