The legalization of cannabis and rapid scale up of supervised-injection sites — as well as community-led initiatives, such as the site set up by Overdose Prevention Ottawa in Lowertown this month — have thrust Canada back into the limelight of global drug policy. Against the backdrop of a national overdose crisis and a fracturing of global consensus on drug prohibition, these are welcome changes. Yet they only begin to chip away at the drug policy challenges facing Canada.

Canada’s policy community remains divided about how best to tackle the overdose crisis. As the death toll mounts, should we invest more in law and order approaches, treatment, harm reduction or some combination?

In recent years, heavy-handed strategies and mass incarceration have been the preferred tactics used by many politicians in the region. Now, facing evidence that this approach has not been effective in lowering levels of violence, some governments are ready to take a different path.

Belize, a country of only 350,000 residents, is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change. An investment in crime prevention and alternatives to imprisonment may seem difficult, but the reality is that reallocating resources from punitive strategies to community services and treatment is probably more efficient and less costly.

Some politicians, such as the former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, have considered contracting U.S. companies to build new, larger high-tech prisons — plans whose fates are unclear under the country’s new administration. But when Nicaragua announced in February that it had released more than 8,000 prisoners on parole as a “humanitarian measure” over the last two years, the concept was heralded as a potential new approach to incarceration in Central America.

Although the government did not frame the release as a crime-reduction initiative, there is reason to believe that such measures, contrary to conventional assumptions, could help. Research from the United States shows that more incarceration rarely reduces crime. And prison itself can be criminogenic — meaning that spending more time in prison can increase a person’s likelihood of becoming a repeat offender once released. In other words, allowing incarcerated people to return home ahead of the completion of their sentences is not only a humane action but it could also mitigate harmful effects of imprisonment — and it is less expensive than long sentences. Should Nicaragua’s initial release succeed, it could set a precedent for additional criminal justice reforms in Central America.