CALGARY — Canada ranks sixth in the world's first drug policy index, but experts say its passing grade is nothing to be proud of as status quo policies are doing little to curb thousands of deaths yearly.
The Global Drug Policy Index ranks countries on their drug policies against recommendations set by the United Nations on human rights, criminal justice and treatments.
The majority of the 30 countries included in the study received failing grades, with a median score of 48 out of 100. Norway (74), New Zealand (71) and Portugal (70) were the top-performing countries.
Canada landed a 56.
"It's a passing grade, but (Canada) is not doing well," said Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.
"There have been lots of calls for decriminalization, safe supply and legal regulation and they haven't taken big steps in that direction.
He said without changing the policy of drug prohibition, the toxic drug market will continue to kill Canadians. More than 22,000 people have died from accidental opioid poisonings since 2016 and the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the crisis.
British Columbia is the first province to seek an exemption from the federal government to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.
While Canada has implemented some innovative harm reduction measures, such as supervised drug-use sites and opioid agonist therapy, MacPherson said those services mostly cater to urban populations in major cities.
"You're very much alone in the majority of rural homes," he said. "There's no equity in the delivery of services."
The index, a project by the Harm Reduction Consortium, graded countries in five categories: harm reduction; the absence of extreme responses, such as non-consensual confinement as a form of treatment; proportionality of criminal justice; access to medicines; and development.
Canada lost a significant number of points for how its drug policies disproportionately target racialized people and low-income groups.
Matthew Wall, an associate professor at Swansea University in Wales who led on the development of the index’s methodology, said Canada is one of the most progressive states in the world for drug policy but inequities in policing people who use drugs really "let Canada down."
He cautioned that even if a country scored perfectly, it would not be representative of "utopian drug policy."
Instead, Wall said the purpose of the index is to provide a sort of checklist for countries to assess the value of their practices.
"There's a competitive dynamic among states with these types of indexes, so states would rather be better ranked when it comes to the international arena," said Wall. "The idea is that they'll use that to leverage change in their respective states."
The index reflected several key themes across the globe, including how drug law enforcement targets primarily non-violent offenders and marginalized individuals. Only Norway was considered to have secure funding for harm reduction initiatives.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2021.
Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press