The Canadian reform movement you haven't heard about

The Canadian reform movement you haven't heard about

written by David Hewson of CSSDP


I haven’t spent a lot of time in the United States, but I’ve gotten the impression that among drug policy activists, Canada gets a lot of respect. The city of Vancouver is well known for InSite, the only legal safe-injection site in North America; busting marijuana users is a low priority for Canadian law enforcement; and so far, we’ve avoided locking people up at the unprecedented rate that Americans have.

It’s not that life is perfect, or that the winters don’t get you down. But as far as drug policy went, Can

ada just seemed more sensible. In 2003, Hendrik Hertzberg of the

New Yorker ended a commentary on our relaxed approach to marijuana (and gay marriage) with this much-repeated gem:

This resulted in some incredibly nervous moments, including band-aid funding extensions and a legal case questioning whether InSite should be allowed to exist. Many were relieved on September 29, 2011, when the Supreme Court of Canada (the highest court in the country) ruled that InSite should remain exempt from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, allowing the site to remain open indefinitely.“Good old Canada. It’s the kind of country that makes you proud to be North American.”The times have changed, and things have not been easy.1. InSite. Despite being remarkably effective at what it’s supposed to do – i.e. make drug use as safe and clean as possible, reduce the spread of disease, and prevent overdose deaths – the site is still funded by the federal government. For the past several years, our government has been led by the Conservative Party, and their national anti-drug strategy has not mixed well with a legal injection site for illegal drugs, run with government money.

2. Prisons. As I write this, the Conservative government is on the cusp of approving Bill C-10, which would create new laws with mandatory minimum sentences – the same policies that led to America’s world-beating incarceration rate. This despite the fact that in Canada, crime rates are at a historic low – although cynics like to point out that there tends to be more crime in the parts of the country that vote Conservative. Scary stuff.

There is some good news, though. Many Canadians are making it clear that they don’t like what’s happening with drug policy. InSite enjoys support both in Vancouver and across the country, and when they faced the prospect of using it, many Canadians spoke up. CSSDP played a role, taking part in “Overdose Awareness Day”, which included displays vividly showing the lives that InSite has saved:

CSSDP conference 2012

Political parties have also shown their opposition the Conservative’s anti-drug policies. Both the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberal Party support InSite and have advocated more relaxed drug policies, with the Liberals recently deciding tosupport legalized marijuana for the first time in their history.

Bill C-10 – the one that would introduce mandatory minimums – is facing a wave of controversy, both within Canada and internationally. Using our “Action Alerts” email list and other online tools, CSSDP has helped mobilize the public against the bill, and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition has started a blog series commenting on developments.

I should note that some of the most effective voices against the bill are Americans who helped create minimum sentencing in the 1980s, and are now warning Canada not to go down the same path. (One of those to recently speak up is Eric Sterling, a LEAP member who will be familiar to many of you at SSDP.) When these former drug warriors speak, people tend to pay attention.

Where am I going with all of this?

Firstly, I want you not to take what you have for granted. There are plenty of exciting things happening in American drug policy now – dispensaries, “Right on Crime” and more public support than ever for legalized marijuana. The momentum is inspiring. But don’t for a second think that change is inevitable, or that some backsliding can’t take place.

Secondly, there’s a lot of good we can do by poking our nose in each other’s business. For years, American drug activists have looked to Canada as an example of a country that’s a lot like America, but with much more sensible drug policies. At the same time, Canadian activists are inspired by some of the recent developments in your country, such as the medical marijuana dispensaries that have sprung up in some states. And the involvement of LEAP members in the Bill C-10 debate goes to show the positive effect American voices can have.

With that in mind: this weekend (March 2-4), CSSDP is holding our annual national conference in Calgary. It’s the only national drug policy conference in Canada, and people will be coming from across the country to share experiences and move forward on these issues.

We’ll also be live-streaming the conference from @CSSDP, starting on Saturday, March 2 at 9am MST (11am EST). Please tune in if you can, and join the conversation on Twitter by following the event hash tag, #cssdp12.

Hope to see you guys online. Until then – stay sensible.

CSSDP Conference 2012

– David Hewson

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