Along with participants from the US, Mexico, Canada and other parts of the world, SSAC program leader Suzanne Fraser and SSAC adjunct Kate Seear participated in May in an historic roundtable event, held in Vancouver by the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Entitled “Responding to Crisis: A Public Health and Human Rights Approach to the Legal Regulation of Currently Prohibited Substances” the event was a response to the severe opioid overdose crisis currently underway in Canada.
A growing body of research shows that traditional “war on drugs” law enforcement-based approaches to the control of illegal drugs have had a significant negative impact on individuals, communities and states in terms of public health, human rights, economics, rule of law, and the environment. Globally and within Canada, criminalisation of production, distribution, and possession of controlled substances has led to a vast unregulated market for drugs controlled by organised criminal actors (Auditor General of Canada 2001; UNODC 2005).
North America is now experiencing the after-effects of such a market in the opioid overdose epidemic, which is largely attributed to supply of street drugs containing highly potent substances such as fentanyl. It is estimated that there were over 4,000 opioid-related deaths in Canada in 2017, of which 72% are attributable to clandestinely-produced fentanyl (Government of Canada 2018). British Columbia has declared a public health emergency resulting from the opioid crisis.
The roundtable’s goals were:
- to develop a strategic road map – with concrete steps – for Canada to progress away from the policies of prohibition towards policies that promote public health, human rights, and social inclusion based on the legal regulation of currently illegal substances;
- to outline areas of further research to inform this strategy and identify appropriate regulatory models for the Canadian context;
- to outline a knowledge translation strategy aimed at raising awareness and support for policy change;
- to identify opportunities for international collaborations that will support further action.
As part of the roundtable, a special public event was held on May 15th at the Goldcorp Auditorium, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. “Systems Change: Envisioning a Canada Beyond Prohibition” brought together a group of experts including SSAC’s Suzanne Fraser to explore post-prohibition worlds. Drawing on research she has conducted in Australia and Canada, Suzanne highlighted the need for direct efforts alongside law reform campaigning to challenge the stigmatisation of drug use, and reminded the audience that drug use is presently seen in ways that suggest it is a threat to liberal social formations. Quoting feminist science studies scholar, Susan Leigh Star, she observed that “power is about whose metaphors bring worlds together”, pointing to disease metaphors as particularly ill-equipped to tackle stigma, despite the hopes of some proponents.
The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition’s website is: http://drugpolicy.ca/