Pete Wishart: What the UK could learn from Canada’s approach to drugs

The Scottish Affairs Committee visited Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec
The Scottish Affairs Committee visited Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec
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If there is any relationship in the world that can be described as being remotely similar to Scotland within the UK it is the example of Quebec within the Canadian Federation. Whether its is in how its intergovernmental arrangements are designed, to the issues around immigration, to its place in trade arrangements as a sub national Government, Quebec is a useful example for Scotland to examine. That is why the Scottish Affairs Committee travelled to Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. It was a fascinating and instructive visit.

We have just concluded our report into intergovernmental relations and we wanted to explore how devolved Scotland compared with a federal arrangement that boasts of being the most decentralised nation in the world. Quebec has also had its own constitutional tensions with Canada which were only resolved with two independence referendums. What we found was a “nation within a nation” more or less reconciled to its place in federal Canada.

Quebec has the same perilous demographic issues as Scotland with an ageing population dependent on an ever shrinking working age population. It also has a growing economy to fuel. What we found was an “accord” that devolved responsibilities over immigration to the Quebec provincial government which allowed them controls over numbers, categories and skills. They were able to tell us that they now have responsibility of 60 per cent over all immigration matters and it seems to satisfy everybody.

We are also conducting an inquiry into problem drug use in Scotland following the appalling number of drugs deaths recorded in Scotland making us the worst example for drugs deaths in Europe.

During our visit we found an entirely different approach to drugs – one which seeks to fundamentally re-evaluate problem drug use as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice one. As part of their efforts to reduce the harm caused by substance abuse, Canada has introduced a number of safe drug consumption facilities. These facilities provide a space for drug users to access clean equipment, and consume substances in a safe and sterile environment, under the supervision of medically trained staff.

We visited one such facility in Ottawa to see how they operate in practice. Since it was opened, the area has seen a marked reduction in the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, increased referrals to health and social programs, decreased public drug consumptions, improved community safety, as well as fewer deaths from overdoses.

Equally crucial has been the facility’s integration with additional wrap-around services (such as mental health, housing and welfare support), which has enabled more people to be referred to these vital services, and thereby address the route cause of their problematic use. Each of these referrals supports an individual whose problematic drug use would have continued unaddressed.

Canada has also just recently legalised cannabis. Stores selling cannabis are now opening up all over Canada as the Canadian federal government attempts to take this trade out of the hands of the gangsters and black economy. We spoke to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce who are now planning for cannabis retail to become a legitimate multi-billion dollar business in the next few years. Legalisation is in its early days but it has been embraced from provincial governments of all political persuasions and we will continue to see how this huge piece of national policy innovation works out.

Here in Scotland we face the difficult task of reconciling the need to tackle our own problem drug use with the UK’s strict criminalising approach. The question of how this can be done, or what might need to change at Westminster to give Scotland the flexibility to address the unique drivers of drug use in Scotland, is exactly what my Committee is addressing in our own drugs inquiry.

While Canada is not the UK, and Scotland is not Quebec, there is a fascinating parallel between the two relationships and there is so much to learn from how Canada does its intergovernmental business. Lastly Canada also showed us clearly that relationships and intergovernmental arrangements are never static and are always constantly evolving. Now, where have we heard that before?

Pete Wishart MP is chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee