Legalizing all drugs would be good for Canada, according to Toronto Liberal MP

B.C. report calls for decriminalization of illicit drugs to quell opioid epidemic

A Toronto-area MP is advocating the decriminalization and eventual legalization of all drugs, saying it should be a public health issue, not a criminal matter.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Liberal MP for Beaches-East York, said he believes in the health minister's view that "we should treat drug use and abuse as a health issue and not as a crime."

He added that if we follow the idea of a public health approach — the only logical conclusion is to regulate all drugs.

"There is evidence around the world that the war on drugs is an abject failure," Erskine-Smith told Matt Galloway on CBC's Metro Morning. The criminal prohibition and law enforcement approach empowers criminal organizations and doesn't actually do anything to dissuade addicts and users, he added.

Erskine-Smith says the criminal element of the war on drugs "stigmatizes the user and they're less likely to seek help."

Portugal as an example

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized small possession and use of all drugs. Erskine-Smith says the change led to a decrease in teen drug use, drug overdoses and deaths, and criminal penalties dropped by 60 per cent.

A 2014 policy paper by the Centre for Addition and Mental Health confirms Portugal has seen a decline in substance misuse, drug-related harm and a reduction in illicit drug use by adolescents — but it isn't known if trends are the direct result of decriminalization.

"MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith's argument with the prohibition of narcotics and his advocacy for a change in policy to one of harm reduction theory does not accurately recognize that the policy that has failed Canadians over the past 10 years," Pamela McColl of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) argues.

"It is possible to discuss a move to changes in the penalties without moving to full-scale commercialization, or legalization," she said. "But as with Portugal do not expect to see rates of use decline without massive public education."

Erskine-Smith isn't alone in advocating for decriminalization of all drugs. The Global Commission on Drug Policy — a global group, which includes Kofi Anan, Richard Branson, Louise Arbour and several former world leaders, has long promoted decriminalizing drugs and in 2014 it recommended governments legalize all drugs.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has studied the effects of decriminalizing marijuana, the results of which it presented in a 2014 report.

CAMH said "a decriminalization approach can reduce some of the adverse social impacts of criminalization" and that the annual cost of enforcing cannabis laws alone (including police, courts and corrections) cost Canadians $1.2 billion in 2002.

Safe injection sites

In December, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott introduced bill C-37, which aims to tackle the country's opioid crisis and ease restrictions on supervised injection sites.

Erskine-Smith cites Vancouver's supervised injection site — the first in the country, which opened in 2003 — as an example where health-based policy has worked in Canada. He admitted that not all drug users will use such sites, but said many will — which can lead to lives being saved.

Toronto's city council has approved three supervised injection sites, which the province said it will fund. Those sites aren't open yet, but will be located at:

- Yonge and Dundas (Toronto Public Health - The Works Needle Exchange program).

- Bathurst and Queen (Queen West-Central Toronto Community Health Centre).

- Carlaw and Queen (South Riverdale Community Health Centre).

On Jan. 9, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins released a statement saying: "I believe that community-supported and community-run supervised injection services will not only save lives, but also must be part of a larger strategy for harm reduction and supports for people struggling with addiction."

According to CAMH, one of every eight deaths among Ontarians aged 25 to 34 is related to opioid use.

Erskine-Smith was clear in saying that his stance was not necessarily the Liberal government's stance and that currently the government is not advocating for decriminalization of all drugs.

He added that he fully supports the government's approach to legalizing marijuana. At this time, possessing and selling marijuana for non-medical purposes is still illegal everywhere in Canada. But the Trudeau government has said it will introduce legislation to legalize it this spring.