May 14, 2020 — Today, more than 50 leading human rights, health, and drug policy organizations from across the country, including the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Pivot Legal Society, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Canadian Association of People who use Drugs, Amnesty International, the BC Centre on Substance Use, and the Canadian Public Health Association, are calling on key ministers in the federal government to immediately decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs in response to the twin crises of opioid overdoses and the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no time to waste.
The ministers named in a letter sent today — namely the Ministers of Health, Justice, and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness — have the power to immediately decriminalize simple drug possession in Canada. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act gives the federal Minister of Health the authority to issue an “exemption” to “any class of persons” from the law, in the public interest. This can be used to exempt everyone in Canada from the section of the law that makes simple possession of drugs a crime.
“This is a step that can be taken today, without delay. By decriminalizing simple drug possession, we would be protecting the health of people who use drugs, preserving police resources, and reducing unnecessary police interactions and contact. And importantly, fewer people would be held in detention,” says Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Director of Research and Advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “With a growing number of COVID-19 cases in prisons, it’s perverse to put more people behind bars where people are more vulnerable to infection.”
These organizations are speaking out to highlight the tremendous damage that criminalizing drug possession has on people who use drugs. And more organizations continue to sign on to support the letter, showing strong nation-wide support in Canada for decriminalization now.
While the criminalization of drug possession already creates barriers to vital harm reduction and other health care services, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated those barriers. Harm reduction measures such as supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites, naloxone distribution, and needle and syringe programs have been reduced or shut down in the face of COVID-19 and related outbreaks. Extra street-level law enforcement means people who use drugs face heightened fear of arrest, further isolating them from accessing the resources and supports they rely on to be able to use drugs safely. As a result, more people are using drugs alone, and the substances they’re using are increasingly likely to be unsafe due to new gaps in the drug supply chain. Unsurprisingly, some cities are already seeing reports of increasing overdose deaths since the onset of COVID-19.
Canada has taken principled stands in the past. “In 2016, Canada rightfully declared at the UN General Assembly that drug use is a matter of public health rather than criminal justice, and it has since spearheaded efforts to challenge stigma against people who use drugs” says Scott Bernstein, Director of Policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. “But such declarations are meaningless if the government doesn’t act to change the law.”
The Canadian organizations that are signatories to this important call are not alone. A growing number of international bodies and experts have called for a moratorium on new drug charges in view of the pandemic, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. “Decriminalization has long been an evidence-based measure that civil society has rallied for, but it’s even more urgent now in the context of this pandemic. It would lessen needless burdens on the legal system — both in prisons and courts of law — at a time when physical distancing is still one of the main public health recommendations for dealing with COVID-19,” says Caitlin Shane, Staff Lawyer at Pivot Legal Society.
Simply put, there is an urgent need for bold action that upholds the health and safety of people who use drugs. Criminalizing drugs, and the people who use them, is bad policy – and is even worse during recent times. We must put an end to the stigma, prosecution and imprisonment that undermine the effective public health responses we urgently need. All people in Canada should be exempted from the criminal prohibition on simple drug possession.
Communications and Campaigns Officer
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
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