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Stephen Staley: Canada truly is broken when it comes to our destructive drug policies

Commentary

Last week, Canadians, particularly those in Ontario, may have been forgiven for feeling a brief frisson of optimism after a series of announcements seemed to indicate our various orders of government had made a rare, reasonable decision on drug policy. The feeling is understandable, but sadly it is mistaken. 

After weeks of Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre pounding the federal government over its support of the City of Toronto’s insane request to follow British Columbia’s failed (and now reversed) decriminalisation experiment, the province of Ontario belatedly announced that it would not support such a plan. The federal government in Ottawa reluctantly followed suit, announcing that it would also temporarily retreat. And finally, Toronto itself acknowledged that its desire to descend further into the crime and chaos of decriminalisation was doomed for the moment and pivoted to pleas for cooperation on a series of more modest-sounding alternatives. 

Those of us who spend far too much time online witnessed a cacophony of usually reasonable people applauding these announcements, convinced that common sense had seemingly prevailed. Sadly, it has not. 

What has been obscured by the dishonest theatre of these recent announcements is that all of our incumbent governments, at all levels, are aligned in preserving the status quo on drug policy, which has failed, continues to fail, and is destined to continue failing badly. Regardless of the grand pronouncements from the Province of Ontario on “opposition to decriminalisation” and Ottawa’s half-hearted retreat on the same (a policy the Trudeau government’s rhetoric indicates that it clearly still believes in) the reality on the ground is that drugs in Toronto are already decriminalised in practical terms. 

I live in Leslieville, the neighbourhood just east of downtown Toronto where much of the debate on this topic has come to a head in the past year or so. For further background on what has transpired in our diverse and gently gentrifying community, I strongly recommend reading the cumulative work of my courageous and dogged neighbour Derek Finkle and the peerless and fearless Adam Zivo

In brief, our neighbourhood was the site of a shocking murder last year, when a young mother was gunned down across the street from a supervised injection site at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre (SRCHC). Those accused of the crime include a group of three alleged drug dealers and a member of staff of the SRCHC, who is accused of aiding at least some of the shooters after the fact. 

The outrage of this brutal crime and the ensuing investigation by concerned families in our neighbourhood uncovered some shocking facts that highlight the insanity of our current drug policies in Canada, and underscore why sensible people clearly believe that when it comes to drug policy, Canada is broken. 

First, the reason that the three drug dealers were fighting over the turf in front of the SRCHC (the busiest intersection in our community) was because it was both the epicentre of drug users in the area and because the police practiced what they euphemistically called “nuanced policing” in the area immediately adjacent to it. Turns out, the “nuance” was that the police simply didn’t go there, so every part of the drug supply chain was free to do quite literally whatever they wanted. 

Second, if you looked past the soft-sounding terminology they employed with vigour, the actual beliefs and actions driving the activists who had their hands on the levers of drug policy across all three levels of government could be boiled down to this: they were pro-drug, and in favour of drug users continuing to slowly destroy themselves and their surroundings with increasingly potent poison, without consequence and in perpetuity. 

Third, the passion of the activists and their cousins in the public health bureaucracies, and the doublespeak of their terms, had created an environment where anyone who questioned why we were pursuing these policies was attacked relentlessly as heretics, villains, and simpletons. Our provincial government, in response to overwhelming outcries from the community, launched half-hearted studies and investigations that are clearly on a road to nowhere, while the site and attendant policies at the centre of all of this continue mostly as before. 

An interim injection site inside Toronto Public Health’s offices at Dundas and Victoria St. in Toronto on Monday, August 21, 2017. Cole Burston/The Canadian Press.

This is the status quo today. So, when we see celebration that we haven’t adopted the same insane, failing path that has been destroying the lives and neighbourhoods of Vancouver and are instead maintaining the course we were already on, many of us see no cause for jubilation. 

A couple of weeks ago, when Toronto was still pining to follow Vancouver’s path into the abyss, the lead “public health expert” in Toronto, Eileen Da Villa, attempted to soothe our concern by saying that decriminalisation would not lead to a scenario where people could use drugs in parks or on the TTC with impunity. In one sense it may be true that the new policy wouldn’t have enabled that, but only because that is already the reality in Toronto under our existing policies. 

Everyone who regularly takes the TTC or lives in any proximity to one of our many deteriorating public parks can tell you stories of people smoking crack on their streetcar (I personally have seen it no less than six times in 2024 alone), or shooting up in their local park, leaving used needles strewn around the swing sets and colourful slides and monkey bars. I’m part of a local community chat group in Leslieville where there are pictures shared literally every single day of exactly this occurring in our neighbourhood alone.

Indeed the parallel universe where the decriminalisation debate was taking place was so frustrating because it seemed designed to obscure the truth and the practical reality on the ground. What a bizarre sight to witness the Minister of Health Sylvia Jones declaring she would never allow to happen in Ontario what she in fact currently allows—and has been allowing for as long as she’s been in the role. 

The head-pounding dishonesty of this is a microcosm of so much of the public policy debate on this topic, where the public health “experts” get to deploy terms like “harm reduction” to describe policies that have been shown to increase harm to both drug users and the communities around them. Similarly, these same so-called “public health experts” are able to describe their adherence to “evidence-based policies” to describe policies for which there exists zero truly compelling evidence of success, either academic or practical. 

Finally, the debate around whether or not we should decriminalise drug use obscures the fact that across Ontario and around the country, law enforcement already treat these drugs as not worth their time to intervene with, regardless of the formal status of policies in place. Even those of us who are apoplectic about how this “wacko” descent into death and chaos has been allowed to occur don’t want criminal charges brought against drug users (dealers and purveyors are a different story). Rather, we want a sensible policy that treats these poisons rationally, treats the addicts who are suffering under their effects with compassion, and to build a policy environment that prioritises treatment and recovery to bring our loved ones home drug-free. 

What we have today, is a situation where drug dealers operate with impunity and our public health expert class has as their primary goal the erosion of “stigma” around using poison that kills thousands of Canadians with increasing volume and speed. All of this while every elected level of government also cowers in fear lest they be criticized by a class of “experts” who have advocated for and presided over a descent into death and chaos that they excuse by deploying an Orwellian lexicon of doublespeak and then congratulate themselves for having the courage to maintain. 

Enough is enough. We need new policies, and new elected members at every level of government with the courage to take on the lunatics and activists who have taken over our public health institutions and created this nightmarish environment that is destroying lives and communities from coast to coast. 

Don’t be deceived by the dishonest theatre of our so-called leaders. The status quo of drug policy in Canada is broken, and it’s long past time to replace the cowards and villains who have let it happen. 

Fen Osler Hampson and Tim Sargent: Interprovincial trade barriers are seriously stunting Canada’s growth

Commentary

Eliminating interprovincial trade barriers to create one genuine national market is one of the hardy perennials of Canadian politics and federal-provincial relations. But it is a flower that never blooms. It is time for Ottawa to exercise genuine leadership by creatively applying its fiscal powers to incentivize provinces to do the right thing.

Study after study has shown that interprovincial trade barriers seriously stunt Canada’s economic growth and productivity, which now lag further and further behind the single markets of the European Union (EU) and the United States (U.S.). Studies, by the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of Canada among others, find that removing these barriers would boost Canada’s GDP anywhere from four to seven percent. 

Lower GDP not only means that Canadians are poorer per capita, but it also means “lost” revenue of roughly $15 billion or more to the federal government and the provinces each year. That is a lot more than Ottawa plans to spend on fast-tracking the building of new housing ($8.5 billion), pharmacare ($1.5 billion over five years), or defence ($8.1 billion over the next five years).

Despite various attempts over the years to reduce internal trade barriers, many obstacles to trade across provinces remain, especially in procurement, labour mobility, trucking, and agriculture and agrifood. There is less free movement of goods and services in Canada than in the EU, which has 27 member countries and more than ten times Canada’s population, or in the United States, which has 50 states and more than eight times Canada’s population.

Why do these barriers persist? There are well-organized, self-interested lobbies for particular sectors, such as dairy producers in Ontario and Quebec that can block change. Perhaps even more important is the coordination problem: the benefits of removing interprovincial barriers are much greater if all provinces act together, and so provinces are reluctant to lower their own barriers—and anger these domestic lobbies—without some assurance that other provinces will do likewise. However, as we saw with the Canadian Free Trade Agreement in 2017—with its dozens of exceptions—simply bringing the provinces together will not bring about the change that is needed.

So what is the way forward? In one world, the federal government would direct the provinces to remove barriers under its trade and commerce powers (S. 121) in the Constitution. But in a series of crucial rulings, the Supreme Court, including its controversial decision in R. vs Comeau (also known as the “free-the-beer case”), has upheld the rights of provinces to restrict the purchase of goods and services across provincial boundaries.   

Ottawa’s challenge is to exercise leadership, not coerce or hector the provinces, but to offer calibrated inducements to remove trade barriers. 

The basis of such a bargain should be as follows: if provinces are willing to pay the political price for dropping barriers, Ottawa should compensate the provinces with something else in return. However, it should not cut the provinces a cheque, as some have suggested, from the increased revenues generated by substantial GDP growth. This would simply increase provincial dependence on federal transfers. Except for equalization, which is enshrined in the Constitution (and rightly so), each level of government should be as self-reliant as possible to enhance administrative efficiency and provide clear accountability to voters.

A customer takes a jug of milk from a cooler at a grocery store in Airdrie, Alta., on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

Instead, Ottawa should provide so-called “tax points” to the provinces, reducing its tax take so that provinces can get a greater share of the revenue. 

The provinces could, if they chose, raise their taxes by the same amount as the feds lowered them and use it to pay down debt or spend it—perhaps on measures that would help those groups negatively affected by the elimination of barriers. 

Importantly, taxpayers would be no worse off in this scenario and indeed could be better off if the provinces chose not to take up all the tax room given to them—remember that because eliminating barriers increases GDP for everyone, provincial revenues will rise as well. Accordingly, a province could choose not to raise taxes and still see higher revenues.

A key decision when implementing such an approach is whether to offer a deal to any province that wants it or require all provinces to join simultaneously. The problem is that reluctant provinces might try to water down the deal and bargain with Ottawa to remove some barriers and not others for a lower tax point transfer. On the other hand, an extensive federal-provincial negotiation would be a painful and possibly underproductive exercise unless the groundwork is laid properly in advance. 

Accordingly, it may be helpful to take a page from the Canada-U.S. free trade negotiations in the 1980s, where the foundations were laid by the Royal Commission on the Canadian Economy, which conducted a detailed and careful sector-by-sector analysis of the costs and benefits of free trade before talks formally began, thus building critical public support for what the Commission’s chair, Donald Macdonald, called “the leap of faith.” A similar exercise today on removing interprovincial barriers and the benefits of tax point transfers would have to be collaborative with the provinces and the private sector but should start now.

Undoubtedly, a concerted effort to remove interprovincial trade barriers will have immediate political costs. At the same time, the economic benefits will take a few years to materialise as they did with CUSMA and then NAFTA. To ease the pain, the federal government should lower taxes immediately after an agreement is signed and absorb the impact through a temporarily higher deficit or temporary spending reductions. Above all, Ottawa must show leadership and demonstrate its commitment to an agreement from the beginning.