Canada expected to promote harm reduction at UN drug meeting next week

[Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signs a guest book as he meets with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) at the United Nations (UN) headquarters on March 16, 2016 in New York City / Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

The United Nations’ (UN) upcoming assembly on drugs, its first in 18 years, comes at a key time for Canada as the country’s opioid crisis worsens and several cities seek to open safe injection sites.

“Canada will be going there with the intention of promoting some particular key policy options within that forum,” Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, tells Yahoo Canada News. “I think they’re going to be promoting the issue that we need to take a public health approach to drugs.”

Alongside other countries, Canada is expected to take a more progressive approach to combatting drug use and its associated harms at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, which will run April 19 to 21 at the UN Headquarters in New York City.

“Harm reduction is here to stay,” MacPherson says. “Canada’s drug regulation approach is going to grow around the world, as countries start to explore different options.”

The government’s support of harm reduction and the legalization of cannabis was made clear last month at the latest Session of the Commission of Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, MacPherson says.

The meeting allowed the Liberal government to show how their approach to narcotics and addiction differs from that of the previous Conservative government.

“They’re definitely much clearer on their strategy and a much stronger voice around public health, human rights, harm reduction,” MacPherson says.

Under former prime minister Stephen Harper, the government fought to close the Insite supervised injection clinic in Vancouver, despite its recognition as a leader in harm reduction. The government also refused to allow similar clinics to open across the country, even after Insite won a Supreme Court judgement in 2011, allowing it to stay open.

The current Liberal government has signalled its support for harm reduction measures several times, even before winning the election last fall. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has voiced his support for safe injection clinics across the country, and the government approved a second Vancouver clinic in January. Clinics in other Canadian cities are in various stages of development.

But a clear position from Canada’s government won’t necessarily be embraced by other countries attending the UN meeting, MacPherson says.

“In the next few years, the UN has a real problem on its hands trying to deal with the lack of consensus on this issue,” he says. The New York meeting should be the start of a real discussion on dealing with narcotics, as the UN heads towards developing its next political declaration on the global drug problem in 2019.

“The next three years are going to be critical in developing the policies on the ground,” MacPherson says.

He hopes the lack of consensus will have the positive effect of sparking new discussions. “Surely to god we can start to talk about those things at the UN, but [currently] you can’t.”

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