Alberta NDP open to conversation on decriminalizing possession of hard drugs

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Alberta’s NDP government has no position on decriminalizing hard drugs but is open to the conversation around the issue, associate health minister Brandy Payne said Monday.

As Ottawa moves toward legalizing recreational cannabis next year, recently elected federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called for the decriminalization of personal possession of all drugs to help combat the escalating problems with opioids.

Speaking to reporters, Payne said Alberta has not looked at the idea of decriminalization, noting that the designation of drugs as legal or illegal is a federal responsibility.

But she expressed support for Singh raising the issue.

“I think that when we’re dealing with an opioid crisis and a type of emergency that we’ve never seen before, that it’s important to examine all of the different options,” Payne said after delivering greetings at the Issues of Substance conference being put on in Calgary by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).

“That said, we’re seeing with the move toward legalized cannabis that there’s a whole host of challenges of moving an illicit market into a legal market. So, at this point, it’s hard to say.”

Singh has said decriminalization of possession would be part of a renewed emphasis on treating addictions as a health and social issue, rather than a criminal matter. He has advocated for a model similar to Portugal, which did not fully decriminalize all drugs in all circumstances but removed the application of criminal law on personal possession for limited amounts, while offering education and social supports.

The Issues of Substance conference, held every two years, brings together addiction workers, health professionals, researchers, policy makers and those personally affected by addictions.

The conference is occurring during National Addictions Awareness Week and comes as Canada grapples with an epidemic of addiction and death connected to opioids. From Jan. 1 to Aug. 12, 2017, there were 315 deaths related to the opioid fentanyl, compared with 199 in the same period a year earlier.

Rita Notarandrea, chief executive officer of CCSA.

CCSA CEO Rita Notarandrea said the opioids crisis, the oncoming legalization of marijuana in 2018 and the continuing problem of binge-drinking among young adults are major issues the three-day conference is addressing.

She said that when issues such as decriminalization are discussed, it is important to consider all available evidence. Notarandrea noted that the actions taken by Portugal beyond decriminalization are often overlooked.

“The other key, huge component of it is the treatment system that they put into place. That, to me, is the really relevant component of that,” she said in an interview.

University of Calgary professor Rebecca Haines-Saah, a public-health advocate for decriminalization, said it is significant that a leader of a national political party such as Singh is talking about decriminalization.

She said in an interview at the CCSA conference that beyond the legal repercussions, the criminal aspect of drug possession contributes to the stigma that is “the biggest barrier we know to treatment and recovery.” 

“Everyday Canadians are starting to see the magnitude of this and that these solutions are doing the right thing for human reasons and for health reasons. I think we still have a long way to go,” said Haines-Saah, a professor in the department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“There are different solutions that can implemented, but I think having a national conversation about it is important.” 

jwood@postmedia.com

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