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The Canadian government stands by its decision to break drug treaties

Photo credit: Jason Hafso via Unsplash

Whatever qualms one may have with Canada’s strict cannabis regulations, breaking global drug treaties in the name of fair access was an undeniably bold move from the Trudeau administration. And it’s a decision the country’s policymakers are still tasked with defending on international platforms nearly two years on.

Last week (March 2), Health Canada’s director general for controlled substances Michelle Boudreau stood by the federal legalization of cannabis during the 63rd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. She focused her argument around harm reduction and clapped back against recent concerns surrounding increased youth consumption.

“This framework is comprised of four elements,” she told delegates in Vienna, her comments now available in a published report. “Strict access controls with an emphasis on preventing youth access, regulatory requirements and standards for the legal cannabis industry, extensive public education on the risks associated with cannabis use, and a comprehensive monitoring and surveillance program.”

Boudreau pointed to Health Canada’s data indicating a 30 per cent drop in the illicit economy, which represents an estimated $2 billion in sales, and said it has “seen no corresponding increase in the overall size of the [unregulated] market.”

While it would have been difficult for the regulator to collect an accurate report on the illicit cannabis economy before the plant's regulation, this statement affirms numbers from Statistics Canada collected since. Recent data shows an estimated 53 per cent of consumers, or 2.6 million Canadians, obtained cannabis from legal sources in the second half of 2019, compared to 23 per cent in the same period in 2018.

Her comments follow an annual report from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which expressed concerns around regulations allowing for the permitted consumption and sale of recreational cannabis, with explicit fears around youth consumption. High ranking members of the INCB have spoken out numerous times since Canada’s rebellious decision to forgo international drug treaties, but to no avail as the country plows ahead with permitting additional product categories and explorations into legal consumption spaces.

The latest report reads: “Not only are these developments in contravention of the drug control conventions and the commitments made by States parties, the consequences for health and well-being, in particular of young people, are of serious concern.” It goes on to state softer regulations “may decrease the perceived risk among young people regarding the social, emotional or physical consequences of substance use.”

In her comments, Boudreau drew attention to Health Canada’s initial reports, which suggest “rates of cannabis use have not changed among youth and young adults.” In fact, Statistics Canada registered no significant difference in young consumers, ages 15 to 24, reporting cannabis use between comparative third quarters of 2018 and 2019.

She also made a point of addressing the country’s rampant opioid addiction crisis and reaffirmed the government’s commitment to combating drug-related overdoses.

“Harm reduction remains an important aspect of Canadian intervention, which includes supervised consumption sites and prevention centers overdoses,” said Boudreau (translated from French). “To date, Canada has 40 supervised consumption sites. I would like to point out that there has been more 1.6 million visits, the effects of more than 14,000 overdoses were stopped without a single death and that over 57,000 people have been diverted to services, health care, and social services.”

In 2019, the Correctional Service of Canada opened the country’s first supervised consumption program in a federal prison. The Drumheller Institution in southern Alberta now grants inmates facilities and services for the safe consumption of self-supplied substances, including a needle exchange program. There are, however, numerous supervised consumption sites and harm reduction programs throughout Canada still struggling to secure support from their municipalities. And with nearly 14,000 apparent opioid-related deaths recorded in Canada between 2016 and mid-2019, there is no question that the country’s epidemic needs the full breadth of Health Canada’s efforts.

“Regarding treatment, we recognize that there are many paths to recovery,” said Boudreau, in French. “The government of Canada is working to facilitate access to treatment based on evidence. We recently approved hydromorphone as a treatment for people with opioid use disorder.”

Boudreau also took the opportunity to point out the severity of drug laws across the international community, condemning the imbalance between the impact of minor drug crime and the severity of their punishments still prevalent in many countries. Drawing attention to the 2016 United Nations General Assembly outcome document, the most recent global consensus on drugs, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she said, “We remain gravely concerned about the ongoing violations and abuses committed globally in the name of the world drug problem, including application of the death penalty and extrajudicial killings.”

As for the violation of international drug treaties, Boudreau said Canada maintains a “strong partnership with the UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] to achieve the aims of the international drug conventions.” She effectively let the numbers speak for themselves beyond that point. She did, however, state that her remarks were not an endorsement to other countries interested in exploring similar regulatory overhauls.

This article is available under a Canadian Creative Commons licence.