A private member’s bill introduced in the Senate that seeks to decriminalize hard drugs on the grounds that substance use disorder is a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue is taking the wrong approach, says a retired physician with extensive experience treating drug users.
“Taking drugs is not fundamentally a medical problem. It has medical consequences but is not in itself a medical problem, so to treat it as if it were a health problem and far from anything else is false,” said Anthony Daniels, who for 15 years worked to help drug users in Birmingham, England, both inside and outside of prison.
“The problems of drug-taking are not caused by their illegality. … People coming into prison who were drug addicts, you found they were criminals before they took drugs, not afterwards. In other words, whatever attracted them to drugs attracted them to crime. … They actually like this living on the margin—that’s why they do it in the first place.”
Introduced by Liberal Senate appointee Gwen Boniface, Bill S-229 calls for the federal government to develop a national strategy within two years to decriminalize simple possession of illegal substances, including heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine, and fentanyl.
Simple possession generally refers to possession of a controlled substance for personal use without intent to traffic. The bill would replace more severe criminal charges and jail sentences in favour of fines or treatment programs.
In 2019, the Commons health committee recommended that the federal government “undertake an evaluation of Portugal’s approach to the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit substances and examine how it could be positively applied to Canada.”
Daniels told The Epoch Times that he doesn’t find the Portuguese example compelling.
“The situation in Portugal has not been a disaster but it has not been a triumphant success either. In fact, things have been much the same,” he said.
“Drugs was never much of a problem in Portugal anyway. I don’t think they really had the kind of problem that one reads about in San Francisco or in Vancouver.”
Merited or not, the idea is gaining momentum. In September 2020, Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith introduced private member’s Bill C-235 to repeal fines and jail sentences for drug possession. Earlier this month, the City of Vancouver requested that Ottawa exempt the city from laws that criminalize the simple possession of drugs for personal use.
Philip Salzman, a professor emeritus of anthropology at McGill University, wonders if governments are asking the right questions.
“I think the question is why? Why do so many people want to take drugs? It’s pathological. And it’s a social pathology that people are turning to drugs as a way of compensating,” Salzman said in an interview.
“Drugs are about filling a hole in your soul, because if you don’t have a hole in your soul, why bother?”
Many communities across Canada have reported record numbers of opioid-related deaths, emergency calls, and hospitalizations in the past 12 months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Salzman said governments that want to help should loosen lockdown measures that have crippled small businesses.
“This is North America, with the society in which men particularly get their identity from their work and from being productive. And when you get rid of that, they don’t have anything left,” he said.
“The solution to the problem is to give people a life, or at least not actively take away their lives as our elites have done.”
Attorney Heather Mac Donald, a best-selling author and essayist at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, says that the use of illicit drugs goes well beyond a private matter that affects only the user.
“Such use has enormous external effects on society. … The more stoned a society, the less it will be able to function for the good of its most vulnerable members, above all children. By decriminalizing drug possession, the authorities send the message that mind-altering drugs, which are ingested solely for such mental effects, are innocuous and expected in their use,” Mac Donald told The Epoch Times.
“Virtually no one is in prison for possession of a user’s amount of drugs; the possession statutes are a way of getting at high-level drug dealers who are adept at breaking apart the steps of a drug transaction to make acquiring probable cause for a trafficking arrest extremely difficult. Decriminalizing drug possession removes a valuable tool … to protect the public from clear harm.”
Boniface’s bill seems unlikely to pass. In December 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told The Canadian Press he was “opposed to decriminalization of hard drugs. … It is not something that I would be convinced is—or even could be—the panacea.”
An Ipsos poll conducted for Global News in January 2020 found that 47 percent of Canadians supported “the decriminalization of the possession of a small amount of illicit drugs,” while 53 percent were opposed.