By: Erika Dupuis & Kira London-Nadeau

Today, Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020, a new session of Parliament will commence. Now, more than ever, we urge the Federal Liberal party to prioritize the decriminalization of substances as we bear witness to the ongoing and multilayered, economic, housing, justice, and public health crises.

As the Federal government unveils its new budget and priorities, we must re-centre each effort and proposed action within a context that places equity-seeking groups at the forefront. Youth activists have been vocal around envisioning a more just and sustainable future, and we add to these calls by reiterating that terminating the War on People who Use Drugs and rectifying its harms is vital in this endeavour. Considering the several calls to action from federal actors, CSSDP is particularly concerned with Justin Trudeau’s apathetic stance towards decriminalization.

We envision bold, equitable, and progressive policies that acknowledge the inherent harms present within our current drug prohibition strategies. We must begin to make amends by acknowledging the irreparable damage caused by the ongoing War on People who Use Drugs through reparations, widespread pardons and suspension of convictions, the abolishment of the police, and the transfer of power to Black, Indigenous, and communities of colour. 

There is insurmountable evidence that shows that the decriminalization of substance use would socially and economically benefit the country. With the budget playing a central role in today’s resuming of Parliament, it should not be forgotten that Prohibition is costly not only in death, suffering and violence, but also financially for the Federal Government. For instance, of the $664 million allocated to the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy, almost half of this amount is to be spent on the “enforcement” pillar, one of four alongside “prevention,” “treatment,” and “harm reduction.”  It should also be noted that substantial funding goes to major groups involved in the enforcement of Prohibition such as the RCMP (budget of approximately $3 billion a year, about a third of which is federally funded), the Canada Border Services Agency (budget of approximately $2 billion a year) and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (budget of approximately $200 million a year). An analysis published by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction chalks up criminal (in)justice costs to $9.2 billion in 2017 alone. Granted, an important portion of these costs (about a third) were related to alcohol, but the federal expenditure on Prohibition remains in the billions. These costs encompass the expenditures of enforcement through the agencies mentioned above, as well as the ridiculously high price tag of incarceration (in which Prohibition plays a prominent role). As the Canadian Drug Policy perfectly states:

Pouring millions of dollars in tax revenue into a criminal justice response that prioritizes enforcing drug laws also diverts money that could be spent on more important areas such as housing and healthcare,  or more effective programs addressing the social factors driving substance use. Instead, money continues to be  funneled to criminal justice measures that have proven ineffective at ending substance use and preventing the catastrophic loss of life currently witnessed in North America.”

Should decriminalization be off the table following the throne speech later this afternoon, the other option, which has been present all along, is for provinces, territories, and municipalities to decriminalize. Each government level has the authority to issue guidance and or programs to alternatives that do not involve the criminal justice system related to drug possession offences.

The Government of Canada cannot continue to delay its response to the ongoing drug toxicity crisis and what has been the deadliest health emergency in Canada in recent years, surpassing COVID deaths. While additions to safe consumption sites, drug checking services, and safe supply projects have continued to advance in certain provinces, simple programs are easy to roll back with the election of a different government. We have become painfully aware of this, particularly in the past few weeks, with the closure of North America’s busiest supervised consumption site in Lethbridge, Alberta. The sustainability of drug policy that will keep people safe(r) and provide much-needed care and support is predicated on the adoption of bold policy changes, not the more mutable adoption of social programs. 

Decriminalization, ultimately, cannot be the endpoint of this critical dialogue. The move to decriminalize must always be accompanied by a push towards the full regulation, legalization, and accessible, safe supply across the country. While decriminalization offers a significant shift away from the punitive harms enacted by the state, legalization and safe supply will only begin to address the decades of inaction and violence resulting from Prohibition. Nonetheless, the growing appetite and welcoming of decriminalization have the momentum we cannot let pass by. We call on Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party to exert much-needed political will and move toward more sensible drug policies.

Kira London-Nadeau:                                                                        Erika Dupuis:

Twitter – @LondonNadeau                                                             Twitter – @erikandps