By Benjamin Wexler
In 1969, Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Liberal Government appointed a Commission into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs. About 12,000 people came to hear the testimonies of drug users, police, and experts in addiction treatment (and John Lennon). The Commission's final recommendation: legalize the simple possession or cultivation of cannabis for personal use, and gradually decriminalize any possession of drugs for personal use.
Analysts at the time called it “perhaps the most politically explosive document ever put before the government.”
Not much changed.
45 years later, a new Trudeau government legalized recreational marijuana. Now, Canadian cities are asking that Canada make good on that second recommendation.
On 25 January 2021, Montreal’s City Council voted in favour of a motion calling on the Canadian government to decriminalize simple possession of drugs for personal use. In doing so, Montreal joins Vancouver, Toronto, and numerous smaller municipalities in demanding that public health replace criminal enforcement as the guide to federal drug policy.
The motion was written by Snowdon representative Marvin Rotrand and can be read in the meeting minutes available through the city website.
I spoke to Loyola representative and Dawson alumnus Christian Arseneault, who seconded the motion.
“Virtually all of the evidence that we have now shows that prohibition has failed. If we actually want to help people combat the ravages of addiction and drug dependency, we need a new approach,” Arseneault argues. He’s not alone in believing that: L’Association des intervenants en dépendance du Québec (AIDQ) and several other community organizations released a joint statement celebrating the passing of the motion and calling a change in policy “more than urgent.”
This urgency is underscored by recent statistics on drug use and overdoses in Canada. The motion notes that there were nearly 15,000 estimated opioid deaths in Canada in the past 4 years. The crisis continues to be exacerbated by fentanyl circulation and the isolation and strain on health services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
For many Canadians, the ongoing opioid epidemic is a sign that change is needed. “This is an issue I never thought I would be able to address at a city level,” Arseneault admits. However, there appears to be an ongoing paradigm shift; the Angus Reid Institute recently found that 59% of Canadians and 60% of Quebecers support drug decriminalization.
Arseneault also claims that a summer of protests contributed to a growing realization that “policing drug use is not effective, just like policing, well, a whole slew of things is not particularly effective.” Even the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police recently announced that they are in favour of decriminalizing simple possession of drugs for personal use, and the SPVM acknowledged that drug use was first and foremost an issue of public health, not safety.
As an example of successful harm reduction, councillors point to Portugal’s 2001 decriminalization of simple possession of drugs. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, the decision correlated with “reductions in the social harms of drug use, including use in public, the transmission of HIV/AIDS, lost productivity and demand on criminal justice resources.”
Another form of harm reduction is already in place in many Canadian cities, including Montreal. The city has four safe injection sites where medical staff supervise injections to minimize unsafe needle use and to intervene in the case of overdoses. However, Arseneault claims that greater change would need to come through the provincial or federal governments.
Although Montreal has its own police force, their responsibilities are dictated by the province. This limits the city’s ability to change the SPVM’s attitude towards drug use, says Arseneault: “The law on police is pretty straightforward in listing all of the things that police are responsible for, and there’s a long list of the things that have nothing to do with criminal activity whatsoever.”
When asked if he believes a change to provincial policy is realistic, he laughed out loud: “Have you seen this government?” Francois Legault’s CAQ shut down a motion to debate the issue of drug decriminalization back in December 2020.
Meanwhile, Bill C-22, introduced in the House of Commons on 18 February 2021, is one sign of federal legislative change. The bill aims to repeal all mandatory minimum sentencing in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Though far from full decriminalization, it would enable the system to treat drug addiction instead of punishing it.
One option does remain for the city. Vancouver city councillors voted unanimously to request an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. This would effectively decriminalize simple possession in the city. City officials began discussing the implementation of the plan with Health Canada in January 2021. In the same statement celebrating the Montreal City Council motion, the AIDQ called on the city to request exemption as well.
This is a pivotal moment for drug legislation in Canada. Perhaps Montreal will make a similar decision in the near future. Perhaps it won’t need to.