Opinion

Eliminating criminal penalties for all drug use is a logical evolution of Canada's drug policy

Portugal recognized years ago that drastic measures were called for in order to combat its own drug crisis. By treating drug addiction as a medical issue, not a criminal one, the country saw considerable improvements in rates of addiction. Canada could learn a thing or two from them.

Portugal decriminalized drug use years ago. Canada should follow suit

By treating drug addiction as a medical issue, not a criminal one, Portugal saw considerable improvements in rates of addiction. (CBC)

It's practically cliché at this point to observe that Canada is in the midst of an opioid crisis. At the end of December, it was expected we would see 4,000 opioid-related deaths by the end of the year — a death count higher than all the lives lost in every military conflict since WWII, combined.

British Columbia has declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, though so far the federal government has not followed suit — even while our neighbour to the south made the announcement back in October. Around the same time, Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of health, remarked that declaring a public health emergency in Canada will amount to little more than "rhetoric."

In fact, it would be much more than that. Recognizing the opioid crisis as a national emergency would be the first step toward radical change, which is necessary when a situation is spiralling out of control. The Liberal caucus has recently proposed decriminalizing all drug use, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly dismissed the idea.

Decriminalization in Portugal

One country — Portugal — recognized years ago that drastic measures were called for in order to combat its own drug crisis. By treating drug addiction as a medical issue, not a criminal one, the country saw considerable improvements in rates of addiction. Canada could learn a thing or two from them.

In the 1990s, after years of conservative governance, the left wing party of Portugal was elected amidst one of the worst drug crises in the world.

One percent of the entire country was addicted to heroin alone. In 2001, in order to combat the crisis, criminal penalties for drugs were abolished and the government placed massive resources into treatment and harm reduction.

At the time, Portugal heard many of the same fear-mongering concerns we hear here when we talk about decriminalizing drugs. Paulo Portas, the leader of the right-wing party at the time, complained to British media about the prospect of planes filled with European students coming in to bask in the supposed paradise of recreational drugs.

But despite initial hyperbole, the results have confounded critics. HIV infections caused by drug use have dropped by 95 per cent and Portugal has the lowest drug mortality rate in Western Europe. In fact, its current per capita rate of overdose deaths is more than five times lower than the European Union average.

Portugal found that in the end, it costs less to treat those with addiction than it does to imprison them. Nowadays, the country spends about $10 per person on their drug policy per year, according to New York Times analysis, while the the U.S. spends roughly one thousand times that — with far less positive results.

An evolution in policy

The move to decriminalize all drugs is often touted as a radical measure that was quickly implemented in response to a tragic crisis. However, decriminalizing drugs and treating people as patients rather than felons was an evolution—not revolution—in already existing drug policy.

Reacting to the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, Portugal's conservative parliament implemented a 1993 law that outlined punishments for drug use with the caveat that people with addictions are in the first place "persons who are in need of medical assistance and everything should be done in order to treat them."

The 2001 decriminalization bill was brought forward as a natural progression of the 1993 law, rather than the common misconception: as a precipitous break with tradition.

Removing criminal penalties for drug use and investing in treatment options is a logical evolution of our drug policy. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

Canada's approach to drug policy might come off as more akin to that of the U.S. "war on drugs," but we also have some history of approaching addiction as a medical dilemma, rather than simply a criminal issue.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau's 1969 Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, for example, made a political splash by not only calling for the decriminalization of marijuana, but for all drugs in Canada.

At the time, almost all of the report's recommendations were ignored, but the idea did not die on that paper.

Canada's national drug strategy evolved with topics of treatment and rehabilitation being added as harm reduction approaches under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's 1987 National Drug Strategy.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh calling for the decriminalization of all illicit drugs as B.C. coroners service releases staggering new overdose numbers 8:09

We were the first country to legalize medical marijuana and will be the second to fully legalize recreational marijuana after Uruguay. We are one of the few countries around the globe to have supervised injection sites, which offer solutions to the spread of disease and overdose deaths caused by the underground drug world and focus on punitive measures.

All that in mind, removing criminal penalties for drug use and investing in treatment options is a logical evolution of our drug policy, similar to the evolution of Portuguese drug policy in the last decade. But as it stands, only NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has gone so far as to propose total decriminalization of possession of all drugs.

The results from Portugal don't lie. Canada should stop wasting time, money and resources on punitive approaches.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Tom Shannon

Tom Shannon has worked on Parliament Hill specializing in legislative and procedural affairs. He is the former president of a federal employee’s union and holds a master’s degree in philosophy.