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Canada: No more than two pints a week…but cocaine decriminalised?

Canadians have been told to cut their alcohol limit to two drinks per week – ahead of the decriminalisation of a number of Class A drugs, including crack cocaine and heroin in some regions from next week. 

The new guidelines around alcohol, some of the strictest in the West, were announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just days before parts of the country will see heroin and crack cocaine decriminalised.

The Canadian government has recommended that Canadians consume no more than two drinks per week, marking a departure from the previous recommendation of a maximum of 10 drinks per week for women and 15 for men.

The recommendations were made by Health Canada, after the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addictions (CSSA) published a report in January which reached the conclusion that “drinking less is better”. Citing cancer, heart disease and stroke as health risks of drinking alcohol, the CSSA said that no amount of alcohol is safe – adding that if you must drink, two drinks maximum each week is deemed low-risk.

The update marks a radical departure from CCSA’s 2011 guidance – which stated that 15 drinks per week for women, and 10 drinks per week for men, was considered low risk. The new recommendations are based on research into the risk of cancers, including of the breast and colon, along with the risk of accidents, injuries, and violence.

Releasing the advice, the CCSA also urged governments to make warning labels on bottles and cans of alcohol mandatory, so that people will know how many standard drinks they contain, along with the health risks involved and guidance on alcohol consumption.

The radical change in alcohol guidelines contrasts sharply with other Western nations. The UK suggests no more than 14 ‘units’ of alcohol per week – while in Ireland, the public health advice from the HSE states that the recommended weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines are less than 11 standard drinks for women, and 17 standard drinks for men.

The strict new guidelines come just weeks before the Canadian province of British Columbia is set to decriminalise drug possession in an apparent effort to cut the province’s death toll from drug overdose. The radical three-year-experiment, to begin next week, will decriminalise the possession of “small amounts” of cocaine, MDMA, and opioids after more than 2,000 people in British Columbia died from overdoses last year. 

The controversial law, signed off on by the federal government last year, means that Canadians in the Pacific coast province who are found in possession of up to 2.5 grams for personal use will not be arrested or charged. The policy will come into force on 31 January, and will apply to drug users aged over 18.

While it will not fully legalise the substances, those allowed include cocaine, opioids, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstacy. Proponents of the law have argued it will hopefully mean drug users in need of professional help will feel more able to seek it and will not face stigma or fear of criminalisation.

However, those opposing the change say the move could incentivise drug use, worsening the country’s opioid crisis. 

With strict recommendations on alcohol to be enforced, others have pointed to the inconsistency in the Canadian government’s approach to lower-class controlled substances including alcohol.

The contrasting approach to dealing with drug use and alcohol intake has sparked fierce debate in the nation – with some people questioning the government approach.

Heidi Tworek, who is an associate professor of public policy at the University of British Columbia, said the guidance relating to alcohol consumption should be accompanied by other strategies to help drinkers assess their own situation based on family history or alcohol-use disorder.

“This has been difficult in science communication in general, like during the pandemic: how do you communicate around uncertainty and why your guidelines are changing? It will take a lot of time and multiple modes of communication to reach people,” she told The Canadian Press.

Meanwhile, writing for The Toronto Sun, columnist Brian Lilley said the new alcohol guidelines were based “in politics, not science”.

“It’s a load of nonsense being pushed by researchers with an agenda and a willingness to use fear and distortion to push their message,” the journalist penned in a blistering column. He said that claims made in the report were put forward “without context”.

Lilley cited Brock University health sciences professor Dan Malleck, who also took issue with the CSSA’s research.

“On the surface, it seems to have a solid scientific foundation: the CCSA claims its conclusions are based on roughly 6,000 scientific studies. Although it began with a scan of 6,000 papers, it then used vague exclusion criteria to reduce that number to 16,” Malleck wrote.

He described the report as “alarmist and distorting” – while president and CEO of Spirits Canada urged the government to “ensure a further review” of CCSA’s modelling to take into account “the totality of scientific evidence”.

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