It was a beautiful moment: Canada’s statement this moth to the plenary assembly of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, the primary forum in which countries debate global drug policy.
The term “harm reduction” is so contentious that it has yet to appear in any CND resolution. And in recent years, Canada has joined the likes of Russia at the Commission in objecting to even mentioning UN agency documents that recommend evidence-based harm reduction services such as needle exchange programs in resolutions passed at CND. Similarly, Canada had in recent years refused to speak out against the death penalty for drug offences, tacitly condoning the mounting toll of executions by countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Iran.
But this time was different. Canada explicitly declared its support for “harm reduction,” noting that it anticipated more supervised injection services in future, and will also expand access to life-saving naloxone to prevent fatal overdoses. Canada now believes that responses to drugs must be based on evidence and on human rights, including a categorical opposition to the death penalty “in all cases, everywhere.” In fact, Canada declared its support for many of the key items for which the Legal Network and our allies have been advocating.
And the list includes this bonus, another one of our proposals: at CND, Canada told the international community that in legalizing and regulating cannabis, it will seek to align itself with the “objectives” and “spirit” of the international drug control treaties “wherever possible.” Those last two words are key — they mean that Canada it won’t let the inflexibility of the drug control treaties stand in the way of moving forward with this sensible, rational plan.
The statement was welcome news for those of us working to shift Canada’s drug policy away from the punitive, stigmatizing approach that intensified in the past decade. And, judging from the response in Vienna, it was welcome news to civil society gathered at CND from around the world – and indeed to at least some other governments.
Our engagement with the Canada’s new federal government is paying off – and attracting attention. Over the past few months, we’ve had meetings with the Health Minister and other officials and diplomats. Along with international organizations, we delivered a joint letter to the Prime Minister and other ministers about how to proceed with reforming cannabis laws, despite the restrictive international treaties. And we released a brief of recommendations to the government, prepared in collaboration with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and other allies. Many of our proposals were reflected in the statement Canada delivered in Vienna this week.
I truly believe that we’re turning a corner. But, much work still lies ahead if the sentiments expressed in the government’s statement at the UN are to be turned into concrete changes that protect people’s lives. Here’s few key things that we need to do:
We need to get rid of the previous government’s law aimed at blocking life-saving supervised injection sites.
We need to move forward, as promised by the government, with legalizing and regulating cannabis.
And we need to decriminalize possession of all drugs for personal use, as other countries have already done with good outcomes for public health and safety.
If you agree, please consider making a donation to the Legal Network so we can continue this work.
We took a huge step forward in Vienna towards our goal for a sensible drug policy that protects health and human rights. With your support, we can make these changes and save lives.
In solidarity from Vienna,
Richard Elliott, Executive Director