Rethinking ‘Party Drug’ Policy in Canada

Morag Humphrey

In March of 2012, Canada’s federal government passed the Safe Streets and Community Act, otherwise known as Bill C-10, an omnibus bill that carried reforms to the Criminal Code as well as to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). The bill lead to the re-classification of amphetamines as a Schedule I drug (subject to the highest imposed penalties under the CDSA), as well as the inclusion of mandatory minimum sentences for the dealers and producers of these substances.

In bringing forward Bill C-10, the government argued that these new policies would act as a deterrent, discouraging drug dealers, producers, and users from engaging in criminal acts out of fear of being charged and hit with harsh penalties. The legislation was developed as a part of Prime Minister Harper’s “tough on crime” agenda, which has also included fewer conditional sentences for drug trafficking, manslaughter, and sexual assault, as well as stricter sentences for young offenders. As then-Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson stated at C-10’s passing.

“This sends the message out to people if you get involved with this kind of activity, there will be serious consequences.”

Over two and a half years later, it is difficult to say whether the fear of harsher penalties has in any way discouraged the production or distribution of illegal drugs in Canada. And despite the federal government’s efforts, recent deaths associated with the use of ‘party drugs’ would seem to indicate that the Safe Streets and Community Act has had little effect on discouraging drug use, particularly among Canadian youth.

Among the substances associated with the ‘party drug’ moniker, ecstasy is particularly prevalent. It is the fourth most used illegal substance in Canada; in 2010, 3.8 per cent of Canadian youth aged 15-24 had taken the drug at least once in the past year. One of the major dangers associated with taking a drug like ecstasy – or MDMA in its purist form – is that users often know little about the product. The black market created by the prohibition of these drugs has many Canadians consuming unregulated substances.

The Toronto City Council has wrestled over the past year with the notion that ‘EDM’ (electronic dance music) and the culture associated with it is linked to high levels of ecstasy use. In April, Council went so far as to ban EDM festivities from Exhibition Place, although this decision was subsequently reversed. Proponents for the ban argued that it would contribute to the public health and safety of Toronto youth, while those against it maintained that users would seek out the drug irregardless.

In recognition of the latter argument, several groups across the country have already taken steps to mitigate the negative consequences of illegal drug use at EDM concerts. At the recent Shambala music festival in British Columbia, for example, non-profit group ANKORS made on-scene drug testing kits as well as safe “come down” zones available to concert-goers. The approach acknowledged that youth who intend to consume these drugs will find a way to do so irrespective of federal law, and that communities can at least work to ensure that they are taking them safely.

Health experts argue that a further criminalization of illegal substances does not lead to less drug use, or to purer drugs, but rather to more production in the hands of organized crime. Regulatory models in place in countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands are often pointed to as examples of ways in which the negative impacts of criminalization can be managed.

Moving forward, the Canadian government could adopt an approach similar to that of the Netherlands, where the Ministry of Health established a Drugs and Information Monitoring System (DIMS) in the 1990s. This system aims to limit the supply and demand of illegal drugs as well as mitigate the negative effects of drugs use. Drug user can present their substances to treatment facilities without the treat of legal action; once tested, users are provided with information regarding the product’s make-up, quality and dosage. Data collected from these treatment facilities is then used to inform education, prevention, and policy in the country. Moreover, in cases where acute health risks are detected, national and regional warning campaigns are organized by the DIMS.

Another health-centred option the federal government could consider is decriminalization, a model seen underway presently in Portugal. As of 2001, the country has decriminalized the possession, purchase, and consumption of narcotics and psychotropic drugs for personal use. Usage and possession of drugs in the country, however, remain subject to noncriminal proceedings. Drug-related deaths declined for three years after the institutionalization of the policy, although they have been on the rise since 2004.

Over two and a half years after the passing of Bill C-10, the ways in which this legislation does not go far enough to discourage drug use — particularly among youth — must be assessed. Moreover, it is time for the federal government to re-think its policy towards ‘party drugs’, and to develop a strategy focused on mitigating the negative impacts of drug use. The Dutch approach represents a unique step towards regulation that should be considered in the Canadian case.

Morag Humphrey is a 2016 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University, where she completed a double major in Political Science and International Development Studies. Morag’s main areas of interest include municipal politics and social justice.

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