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Opinion Pieces

Why the political avoidance regarding drug decriminalization?

The Conservatives and Liberals have miscalculated public perceptions on substance use decriminalization.

Dr. S. Monty Ghosh – Addiction Physician and Assistant Professor, University of Alberta, University of Calgary

Originally published in The Hill Times on September 6, 2021;

Addiction, the opioid crisis, and how it relates to voters seem to be the discussion points this week with our political parties.  Erin O’Toole, presented his grand $350 million dollar plan to increase recovery oriented supports for 1000 brand new addiction treatment beds and over 50 new treatment facilities and centres.  He also vowed to not to reduce harm reduction supports which have been the mainstay for our Federal Liberals. Indeed, our Liberal Government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in supporting addiction treatment through a multi- pronged approach of harm reduction, safe consumption, and addiction treatment with access to pharmacotherapy.


There is much polarization in the field of addiction treatment.  Most see harm reduction, and recovery being on the same continuum of care with the presence of both being necessary to support clients with no one size fit all solution. Yet many academics, medical professional, advocates and social groups see it as polarizing opposites.  This often plays into party politics with the conservatives focusing on “traditional values of recovery and addiction treatment”, and the liberals focusing on “tolerant and open-minded values of harm reduction”.  One party focuses on expanding recovery support, while the other expands harm reduction, yet neither party openly discusses the establishment and provincial expansion of decriminalization.  This is interesting as it is one area supporters of both addiction recovery and harm reduction most agree upon.  


The hesitancy to approach the issue was seen in our last federal election in 2019, with Andrew Scheer warning voters that Trudeau will move to decriminalize hard drugs, and Trudeau rebuffing that decriminalization was a “non-starter”[i].  Fast forward to 2021, and not much has changed with both parties being rather hush on their policies although the Liberals did introduce Bill C-22, which relaxed mandatory minimum penalties for some offences but left the playing field open for courts to still provide penalties if they choose.[ii] 


Unlike 2019, where public opinion did not support decriminalization, in 2021, public opinion is firmly in support of it, with the majority of Canadians (nearly 60%) supporting decriminalization of illicit substance use possession. [iii]It makes sense on many levels.  Decriminalization has worked in other jurisdictions. In Portugal we have seen that decriminalization not only saved their justice system extraordinary amounts of money, but also reduced the overall rates of illicit substance use.[iv] Decriminalization follows the principle that instead of penalizing individuals for substance use disorders, a medical diagnosis, we instead provide access to wellness supports including housing, income support, and various forms of addiction programming.  We don’t criminalize any other medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or depression, and as such we should not criminalize substance use disorders.  Indeed, criminalization has harmed many, especially our coloured and Indigenous populations, with criminal policies often unfairly targeting them.


It is anticipated that if decriminalization occurs, both parties would differ on the type of wellness support required. In all likelihood, the conservatives would ask for mandatory treatment in addiction facilities instead of jail time.  The Liberals would however, not create mandatory treatment requirements and instead offer non-coerced access to addiction treatment as well as access to harm reduction supports. Both parties would likely facilitate improved access to mental health treatment and social services.  While their approaches to decriminalization may be different, both parties can indeed agree that decriminalization is necessary and a common value, with a strong emphasis placed on health and social based approaches.


The only parties that have picked up on this unifying theme are our National Democratic Party and the Green Party who both support decriminalization openly and with no catch, no restrictions, and a focus on redefining our criminal justice system[v].


The country is undoubtedly moving towards decriminalization.  The Canadian Federation of Municipalities has called for this, with Vancouver being their shining star by requesting a Federal Exemption to start local decriminalization[vi]. The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs [vii]has also stated that decriminalization is key to managing the opioid pandemic. Even health professionals with the Canadian Medical Association have asked for addiction to not be criminalized but treated like any other medical diagnosis.  It's time for both Erin O’Toole and Justin Trudeau to align their policies.  The world is much different than in 2019… it is time both parties make bold moves that make lasting differences to our society.  Bold moves to fundamentally change our approach to substances and substance use disorders.  By doing this, our society creates a dialogue of compassion in a field often overwhelming filled with pain.








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