Members of Canada’s Liberal party are meeting this week at their national convention in Halifax. On the agenda: a proposal to “treat drug abuse as a health issue, expand treatment and harm reduction services and re-classify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations.”
The initiative comes amid the nation’s opioid crisis, where lawmakers are desperate to find alternative solutions to incarceration for addicts. Advocates for the proposal point to successes in Portugal, where all drug use was decriminalized in 2001. Since then, drug use has gradually fallen in the country, and in 2015 Portugal saw the second-lowest rate of drug-induced deaths in the European Union.
In Portugal, even though a person in possession of an illicit drug is not arrested, they are ordered to appear before a “dissuasion commission,” and can be either referred to treatment or given administrative sanctions.
Canada’s Liberal party is led nationally by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will attend the convention. However, after recently passing legislation for legalizing marijuana, the Prime Minister said his party would not pursue the decriminalization of any other drugs.
Liberal Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told The Guardian about the reasoning behind the movement: “It’s one of the few issues where we’re taught from a young age, that drugs are bad and that it’s normal to throw people in jail for using drugs. Yet when you actually start looking underneath those claims and at the actual evidence and hear from people who have study or lived this issue, this isn’t the right approach.”
The party’s proposal further points to the success of Portugal’s model in reducing the number of people sent to criminal courts, where there has been a 60 percent drop since 2001.
Erskine-Smith also argued that decriminalization would make users more likely to seek treatment rather than hide out of fear of severe penalties, while fighting the dangers of lethal drugs circulating in the black market.
His concerns were echoed by Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, who said in a statement, “We are witnessing a horrific and preventable loss of life as a poisoned drug supply continues to kill our neighbors, friends and family.”