By Carlyn Zwarenstein - Filter
Isolation, drug-supply disruptions and other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have sent North America’s already-high overdose rates soaring. Here in Canada, the Liberal government has belatedly taken a significant step in response.
On August 17, the director of public prosecutions issued new guidelines under which federal prosecutors are to resort to criminal prosecution for possession only in the “most serious” cases—that is, where accompanying circumstances or conduct are deemed to pose a risk to others. It’s a potential, tentative de facto decriminalization. Recommended responses to possession of smaller quantities comprise addiction treatment (including Indigenous cultural or abstinence-based recovery centres), counseling, or restorative justice (including Indigenous restorative justice programs) among others.
Some media outlets instantly announced that Canada was decriminalizing. Others, including Filter, have been warier.
Decriminalization has been on the agenda in the United States, too. Decriminalization of possession may now come to pass in Oregon, where Measure 110, replacing arrests with fines and funding treatment, is on the November ballot. That initiative has been heavily backed by the political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance,* which in August released a “model bill” for federal decriminalization. And numerous local jurisdictions have taken steps like curtailing possession arrests during the pandemic, or deprioritizing enforcement of naturally occurring psychedelics.
Canada looks likely to achieve national decriminalization sooner, however. The August announcement was preceded by numerous encouraging signs.
By 2018, a majority of residents of Vancouver—until recently the Canadian city hardest hit by opioid-involved overdose deaths—supported dropping criminal penalties for drug possession. And as the toxic drug supply crisis has deepened across the country, long-held prohibitionist attitudes have gradually given way. By February of this year, one poll found some 47 percent of Canadians in favor of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. Mayors of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal called for the same—as did major public health figures, often also proposing the further step of legal regulation. By July, even the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police had followed suit.
And yet, Canada’s Liberal government, which legalized cannabis in 2018 and which is not philosophically opposed to decriminalization, has consistently refused growing calls to enact it.