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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But this act is outdated.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.