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Is Punishing Canadians for Personal Illegal Drug Use Still the Answer?

By Beth Fleming

The harm to citizens caused by substance use across Canada is substantial: drug overdoses, gun violence, addiction, school dropouts, mental health problems and negative financial repercussions.

Alarmingly, 21% of Canadians will experience a substance use disorder during their lifetime and the pandemic has only worsened Canada’s overdose crisis, yet the government Canadians elected has failed to properly acknowledge this devastating situation.

Sadly, substance use and addiction is rapidly rising, and Canada’s Federal Government must swiftly implement a new drug-related system in order to get ahead of the crisis.

Fortunately, there is another option.

Canada’s Current Policies

Punishment is Canada’s current policy strategy to prevent illegal drug use, through the criminalization of drugs. Public Safety Canada works with various partners to combat the import, production and distribution of illegal substances. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) defines offences and punishments pertaining to the possession, acquisition and trafficking of drugs and substances.

But this act is outdated. 

Canada’s Present Problem

In Ontario, every 10 hours, an opioid related death occurs, and approximately 21 opioid related deaths occur per day across Canada. And yet, surprisingly, Canada’s current drug policies remain the same. Current drug policies have several problems, including a lack of citizens seeking treatment due to the stigmatization of drug use or being labelled as criminals, and an overloading of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) with a focus on punishment rather than treatment.

The CDSA is dismally failing citizens; individuals are not receiving necessary therapy or treatments, resulting in the hopeless cycle of indefinite drug use. 

Alternative to Criminal Penalties 

Canada must develop policies to fight crime, not illness, but what can be done?

The decriminalization of personal illegal drug use and possession occurs when criminal penalties for specific drug law violations are removed. This change excludes the illegal production and distribution of drugs. The decriminalization of personal drug use has already been successfully implemented in over two dozen countries with encouraging results. Clearly, Canada is falling behind. 

Through implementation, Canadians would be steered away from the CJS and directed towards treatment. As a result, Canadians would experience a number of constructive benefits. Drug use would finally be addressed as a health problem, drug tax revenue would be distributed towards necessary education and treatment, and prisoner overflow within the CJS would be considerably reduced.

Successful Models to Follow


In 2001, Portugal implemented a decriminalization policy for personal drug possession and, as a result, deaths related to drug use decreased drastically, sitting persistently below the European Union average, and prisoners sentenced in relation to illegal drugs decreased from 40% to 15%.

Portugal’s model has been successful; the country focuses their resources on prevention, education and treatment. By pairing decriminalization with rehabilitation, drug use and the associated harms are greatly reduced.


In 1994, Switzerland passed drug policies focused on decriminalizing personal drug use and creating access to new supports and treatment options. As a result, drug overdose deaths decreased significantly, overall crime rates dropped and infection rates of HIV and Hepatitis C steadily declined.

Switzerland sensibly focused on these four pillars: harm reduction, treatment, prevention and repression. Their policies shifted to a focus on public health, which successfully decreased barriers to obtaining treatment.

Things to Keep in Mind

The decriminalization of personal drug use has potential consequences that need to be taken into consideration, which the government can counteract. 

Potential Consequences of Decriminalization

Decriminalization can make illegal drugs less expensive, more accessible, and more widely accepted by society. In addition, the resources and services currently in place as drug treatments are not extensive enough to handle a large influx of new addicts and more experimentation may occur if individuals do not fear legal sanctions.

What can the Government do?

While an increase in the supply of drugs and decrease in the price of drugs may occur on the illegal drug market, the government can utilize the freed up CJS resources to target those producing and distributing illegal drugs. The government must implement a policy that expands existing treatment programs to account for an influx of new patients. Finally, by decriminalizing personal drug use the government will ensure that the drugs Canadians are experimenting with are not contaminated through government inspection and monitoring. 

Drugs are not going to disappear so the government needs to focus on what it can do to reduce their harm on individuals and society.

How Old Is Old Enough? The case for younger Canadian voters

By Zuhair Ahmad

Canada should lower the federal voting age to 16 because many of the key issues we are facing today — climate change, environmental degradation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and social and racial justice — will have serious consequences for young Canadians in the future.

In the past, voting was seen as a privilege, which meant that certain groups in the population were not allowed to vote. Now almost all Canadian citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote. 21 was the “age of majority” for most of Canada’s history because that’s when a person was considered mature enough to participate in the democratic process. The federal voting age continued to be 21 well into the late 1960s. A series of bills proposing legislation were eventually introduced in 1969, and the voting age was eventually lowered to 18 in 1970.

The right to vote is supported by constitutional law. The Supreme Court’s January 2019 decision in Frank v. Canada reaffirmed voting as a fundamental political right, which cannot be limited without a compelling justification. The court found that the limit placed on voting violated Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — which says “every citizen” has the right to vote. The Supreme Court wrote “since voting is a fundamental political right, and the right to vote is a core tenet of Canadian democracy, any limit on the right to vote must be scrutinized and cannot be tolerated without a compelling justification.

More and more young Canadians are appealing the federal age to vote by deeming it unconstitutional. In Canada, the federal NDP and Green Party publicly support a younger voting age. The federal Conservative, NDP and Liberal parties already allow members as young as 14 to vote in leadership contests.

Several countries, such as Belgium, Brazil, and Austria, have already lowered their voting ages to 16. Research shows that jurisdictions that have introduced under-18 voting have had a positive impact in terms of political engagement and civic attitudes amongst young adult voters. The current voting age does not align with the minimum age of many other activities that require maturity and judgment, such as driving, joining the military and getting a job.

From March to April 2020, Children First Canada led a national consultation to better understand how young Canadians felt about lowering the voting age. A total of 180 children and youth from across Canada provided their feedback on a range of issues related to the right to vote. 58% of youth agreed that the federal voting age should be lowered to 16 in Canada.

The current voting age aligns with the time that adolescence naturally ends. This is usually when teenagers are graduating high school and leaving home for the first time. Before then, many feel that teenagers should be focusing on education, friends, and after school activities – not getting involved with politics. Teenagers at 16 are unsure about their personal values, political or otherwise. Teenagers are also more likely to be pressured or influenced by those around them.

Some might argue that people under the age of 18 lack knowledge about policies and democracy to make informed decisions. However, adult voters are not necessarily more informed about policy issues than young people when making political choices. Anyway, lowering the federal voting age would probably not change election outcomes. Demographics show that young people below the age of 17 are a much smaller population compared to those in the over 25 age group.

If the federal voting age were be lowered to 16 in Canada, we could combat concerns by first lowering the municipal age to vote in order to gauge the interest and turnout. Or we could require students to pass their civics education course to be eligible to vote. But imagine the potential depletion of the voting lists if all citizens were required to pass a similar course.

Voting rights in Canada have changed over time to become more inclusive. Challenging the federal age to vote could be the next step in expanding and strengthening our democracy.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Sexual Education: Ontario: Are You Listening?

By Nada Nassar

Health Canada states that healthy sexuality involves much more than just avoiding negative outcomes and unintentional pregnancies. It involves developing the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to maintain good sexual and reproductive health throughout your life.

Ontario’s sexual health curriculum, and Canada as a whole, doesn’t involve the development of those skills and knowledge.

Research into reports from Action Canada, CDC, Health Canada and many news outlets have concluded that there is something wrong with sex education in Ontario. From political leaders to teachers in the classrooms, everyone plays an important role in the development of youth. It is their job to ensure they are providing the best education to the next generation.

But when it comes to sex education, it isn’t happening.

The Situation:

Kathleen Wynne introduction of the Liberal’s 2015 curriculum was seen as a major step in a positive direction. Until that point, the curriculum hadn’t been updated since 1998. However, when Conservative Premiere Doug Ford repealed the elementary curriculum in 2018, he reinstated the version from 1998, most likely in deference to the traditionalist wings of the party. These actions have called into question the competency of Ontario’s educational systems and programs.

Action Canada states, “The sex-ed currently offered in Canadian classrooms does not live up to human rights standards, the most modern international evidence on best practices, or the 2019 Canadian Guidelines for Sexuality Education”.

The Guidelines are updated frequently, so why shouldn’t the sexual education curriculum in Ontario evolve with them?

The Problem:

“All territorial/provincial health education curricula were drafted in different years without any specific stated requirements or suggested dates for renewal,” says Action Canada. The publications throughout Canada were created from 2000 to 2012 with not much change, indicating a lack of modernization and revision for Sexual Health Education (SHE) across the provinces.

This lack of updating promotes old, traditional views and concepts that are no longer relevant or ignore current changes in society. An article published by The Conversation highlights that, while most educators and sexual health experts in Canada and at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) believe in comprehensive school-based sexuality education, it has been difficult “to bring educational policies into line with their recommendations, even with strong public support.”

Some of these difficulties have resulted from many parents who have voiced concerns about the content their children will be learning. In response, Doug Ford implemented a “snitch hotline” where parents could tattle on teachers who were educating their students about LGBTQ+ identities, contraceptives and birth control.

According to Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, “Having a Ministry of Education ‘snitch line’ that bypasses the systems already in place to deal with issues at the school level will prohibit parents and educators from addressing classroom concerns constructively.”

The Solutions:

The Canadian Guidelines for Sexuality Education argues that “a prevention-only focus can result in a distorted view of human sexuality that emphasizes negativity and contributes to shame and stigma.” It does not reduce sexual activity.

The obvious solution is to concentrate on evidence-based content and sex-positive discussions.

According to Action Canada, students don’t want their teachers delivering sex-ed because of their poor training and a lack of anonymity. Bringing in professional health educators encourages learning based on facts, not preconceived notions, in a non-toxic environment.

Finally, students need to be part of the discussion. We need to survey high school seniors on what could have prepared them better for the situations they’ve experienced. When students enter high school, they are at the height of their curiosity and vulnerability. Without proper sex education, how can we expect them to make the right choices? We can’t.

As well, we can’t expect them to proactively consider a healthy approach to their sexual activities, identity, and expression during the most challenging and confusing time of their lives.

A UTP Journal article states, “it’s clear that Canada is not doing its part to uphold the rights of children and young people” when it comes to accessing sex education.

When it comes to sex education, Ontario deserves a failing grade.