War on Drugs? Reflections from the CASW President

Like many Canadians, when I heard the news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau  signed on to a renewal of the US led ‘war on drugs,’ I did a double take.

Is this the same Prime Minister whose government has made great steps away from criminalizing addiction towards a public health approach to drug policy?

Is this the same federal government that demonstrated the importance of fighting for people by initiating the first ever National Housing and Poverty Reduction Strategies?

As social workers, we understand that when you fight a war on drugs, you’re fighting a war on people – something we thought this government understood.

For instance, in late 2016, the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) commended the federal government for their leadership on harm reduction with new legislation that supported the opening of new safe injection sites.

Equally importantly, this government also moved the responsibility for federal drug policy under the purview of the Minister of Health – away from Justice – signaling they understood that, fundamentally, substance use is a health issue first.

Since then, throughout the opioid crisis we’re still experiencing in Canada, many Trudeau government officials have spoken about the importance of ending stigma, of supporting recovery, and of a harm-reduction approach.

So, why appear to backtrack on such positive momentum by signing on to a document that reiterates the importance of criminalization and law enforcement’s role?

As a social worker, I know first-hand that criminalization is not the answer: harm reduction, public-health approaches are the ones that will save lives. It’s my belief, and CASW’s belief, that any government’s primary objective should be to save lives and to fight for people to live in dignity.

When I dug a little deeper into the story, I found out that many other advocates were appalled by Trudeau’s choice to sign on to this declaration. I also found out that many political scientists and analysts thought they understood the real reason for this seemingly out-of-character move, so ill-aligned with our existing harm reduction drug strategies in Canada: because it made diplomatic sense, because it was the path of least resistance during this tense time of NAFTA re-negotiations with the US.

So, while I understand the potential political implications of not signing on with the United States – we would have strongly preferred to stand in solidarity with our Prime Minister in courageously challenging the misguided logic of perpetuating a failed 50 year war on drugs.

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CASW is for the decriminalization of the personal use of all psychoactive substances. Read our statement.

CASW looks forward to supporting the Government of Canada’s harm reduction agenda.