Message from the CASW President
Substance Use and Public Health
Prior to the COVID pandemic, Canada was already experiencing an overdose crisis: a crisis intensified by the aggressive expansion of mandatory minimums for drug offences by the Harper Government in 2012. This failed, ideologically-driven ‘tough on crime’ approach went against all public health evidence -- and since its implementation has directly contributed to the near doubling of federally incarcerated Indigenous people in Canada.
Sadly, in 2015, the Harper Government doubled down on the criminalization of substance use by making new safe injection sites nearly impossible to open, directly contributing to the deepening crisis affecting people living with opioid addiction. This decision was not based on evidence, but rather a deeply entrenched view of substance use as a criminal activity.
The tide from criminalization to a public health approach to substance use began to shift in 2017 when the Trudeau Government announced that the responsibility for federal drug policy was being moved away from Justice to the purview of the Minister of Health. Additionally, the Government of Canada took a public health approach to cannabis with its legalization.
Further, legislative changes that facilitated the opening of new safe injection sites, the renewal of harm reduction as a pillar in the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy, and the adoption of the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act were all positive steps in moving away from the criminalization of problematic substance use.
In 2019, the current government took another step forward in a public heath by making changes to the bail system that restored judicial discretion while strengthening measures to respond to intimate partner violence. In 2022, After a decade of deepening the opioid crisis, mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offence was repealed by the Trudeau Government.
Finally, for the first time in Canada’s history, a Minister of Mental Health and Addictions was appointed to a federal cabinet, with a mandate to address problematic substance use in Canada including efforts to improve public education to reduce stigma, and supporting provinces and territories and working with Indigenous communities to provide access to a full range of evidence-based treatment and harm reduction, as well as to create standards for substance use treatment programs.
As the national association voice of social work, the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) has relied on the public health evidence and research in its opposition to mandatory minimums and support for the decriminalization of the personal use of drugs. Thankfully, the current Government has, for the most part, chosen to follow the evidence and most recently announced a three-year decriminalization of the personal use of substances pilot in British Columbia.
In a deeply troubling move that eschews public health research and evidence, Canada's Official Opposition is now seeking to repeal changes that rightfully moved substance use into the purview of public health and bring us back to a bail system that disproportionately affects those experiencing poverty and intersectional oppression: back to a war on drugs and the people who use them.
Canada has moved too far ahead go back. Instead of looking back, CASW implores the Government of Canada to keeping moving forward. Along with decriminalization, it’s time to destigmatize by addressing the need for a clean supply of drugs that will save lives.
Recovery is a different journey for each person experiencing problematic substance use. Now is not the time to play politics with people’s lives. There is no going back, there is only the future – a future that is more equitable when we start to seriously address issues of substance - housing, food security and basic income – rather than substance use.
Joan Davis-Whelan, MSW, RSW
President - Canadian Association of Social Workers