June 30, 2016,

We are at a crucial moment in Canadian drug policy. The federal government has declared a restored commitment to harm reduction and public health, and is open again to discussions with civil society.

As evidence of this new dialogue, on June 17, we welcomed the federal Health Minister, Dr. Jane Philpott to Toronto to deliver opening remarks at “Decriminalization & Regulation: A Public Health & Human Rights Approach” — the 2nd national conference on Charting the Future of Drug Policy in Canada (co-sponsored by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, the Canadian Public Health Association, and with support from the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse). Over the course of the day, nearly 200 policy-makers, researchers, advocates, service providers and community members discussed the future of Canada’s drug policy and how we can learn from other jurisdictions. 

Minister Philpott took the occasion to announce several initiatives aimed at addressing the current public health crisis of opioid misuse, including the mounting number of overdose deaths. Some of these were heartily welcomed by the audience, such as steps to increase access to naloxone and to increase access to treatment for problematic opioid use. Others, such as measures aimed at reducing the prescription of opioid medications by physicians, provoked some serious questions about potentially harmful 
consequences of an overly restrictive approach. Dr. Philpott reiterated her commitment to ongoing consultation with civil society, including in the lead-up to a “summit on opioid abuse” she will convene later this year.

Of course, any discussion of drug policy must include the voices of people who use drugs. Jordan Westfall, President of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), delivered a dynamic speech immediately following the Health Minister, and CAPUD members from across the country made up a large and articulate contingent, ensuring that policy-makers and politicians participating in the conference heard directly from those most affected.

In addition, attendees heard a riveting keynote speech from Joanne Csete, former Legal Network Executive Director and lead author of the report of the 2016 Johns Hopkins─Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health, and rousing closing comments from Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World.

One major session focused on cannabis. Lewis Koski, of Colorado’s Department of Revenue, discussed that state’s experience with legalizing and regulating cannabis. Eric Costen, the head of the new Health Canada secretariat on cannabis regulation, reiterated the government’s commitment to hearing from civil society (including people who use drugs) as it moves forward with legalization in Canada. Several interventions from the floor rightly questioned why, in the interim, the federal government is refusing to decriminalize simple possession of cannabis and continuing to criminalize people for something that the government has decided to legalize.

The conference also explored the need for drug policy reform beyond just cannabis legalization. Dr. João Goulão, Director-General of Portugal’s addictions agency, spoke about his country’s experience since decriminalizing the possession for personal use of all drugs in 2001. He presented data showing a remarkable decrease in overdose and drug-related deaths, as well as in the number of new HIV infections attributed to injection drug use. Other presenters highlighted the harms occurring under the current regime of prohibition, advocating instead a public health–oriented approach to all currently-illegal substances.

Overall, the urgent need for action was palpable — as the Minister declared of the overdose epidemic: “We are in a crisis.”

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Thumbnail: Flickr CC Samuel Auguste