Ottawa Citizen

HOW TO END THE OVERDOSE CRISIS

A legal system would save lives, say Natasha Touesnard, Dr. Christy Sutherland and Lindsey Richardson.

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It is distressin­g that the toxic drug poisoning deaths of more than 22,000 Canadians were not a bigger issue in the recent federal election, especially when government policy is a driving factor behind those preventabl­e deaths. The newly created federal Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions must take steps toward securing the life, liberty and security of people who use drugs and ending the overdose crisis. The action needed from this new ministry is clear.

The overdose crisis has been fuelled by increased toxicity in the unregulate­d drug supply and the ongoing criminaliz­ation of people who use drugs. Coroners' data from across the country tells us things have only got worse during the pandemic. British Columbia is on pace to record the highest-ever number of fatalities, with similarly alarming trends across the Prairies, Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Isolation, challenges to mental health, decreased service access and an unpredicta­bly dangerous drug supply are all at play.

The number of deaths could — and should — be close to zero. These deaths are the end result of policy failures.

Our drug prohibitio­n laws are directly responsibl­e for the drug supply being adulterate­d with highly toxic contaminan­ts: Nothing that is illegal is regulated, and the production of illegal substances is left to clandestin­e producers with no standards for drug potency and purity. The enforcemen­t of these laws produces predictabl­e inequities for racialized and poor Canadians, including disproport­ionate burdens of arrests, incarcerat­ion and overdose. People often mistakenly believe that the illegality of drugs is a given, but it is a relatively recent stance, largely driven by colonialis­m, racism, classism and political expediency.

Our original drug prohibitio­n laws began with the Opium Act in 1908, a response to anti-Asian sentiment and perceived threats from the opium trade that provided legal cover for the persecutio­n of Asian people. The past century has seen subsequent restrictio­ns surroundin­g the production, distributi­on and consumptio­n of psychoacti­ve drugs that are commonly motivated by racialized and class-based moral panics rather than the pharmacolo­gical properties of drugs.

Policy change should prioritize both decriminal­ization and legal regulation. Decriminal­ization measures must allow for the possession of sufficient quantities of currently illegal substances to protect all people who use drugs from the perils and inequities of criminaliz­ation. They must also effectivel­y address the harm experience­d by those already entangled in the criminal justice system. However, decriminal­ization alone will not address the catastroph­ically toxic and unregulate­d drug supply.

Only the legalizati­on and regulation of drugs will offer a safely regulated drug supply to all Canadians and reduce the unacceptab­le toll of drug overdoses. And any changes must centre on people who use drugs throughout the policy-making process.

The unacceptab­le burden of overdose on racialized and poor Canadians is even more egregious in comparison to the luxuries of safety around substances so many Canadians enjoy. The alcohol we drink is regulated, and if someone died from a poisonous substance being added to our alcohol supply, there would be a regulatory response. All substances should have those same safety mechanisms in place to protect the people who use them.

Drug use should be euphoric and safe, regulated with oversight on distributi­on, advertisem­ent and labelling. A specific framework for each substance would protect youth, cut out organized crime, and provide ethical products that don't rely on violent and destructiv­e supply chains. Individual­s who consume substances wouldn't be criminaliz­ed for the possession, acquisitio­n, procuremen­t, sale or distributi­on of substances. A legal, regulated system would divert costs from the criminal justice system — which could be redirected to community-led responses to drug-related harm.

Cannabis legalizati­on in 2018 has been one of the most significan­t policy achievemen­ts of this federal Liberal government. Worries about this change did not pan out: There was no increase in cannabis use in youth, nor in impaired driving and public disorder. We have learned that the sky did not fall.

Which brings us back to the most recent election and our newly created Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. The new minister, Carolyn Bennett, must learn from the successes and challenges of cannabis legalizati­on by acting — quickly — to overhaul our current approach to psychoacti­ve drugs. Failure to enact drug policy reform will effectivel­y sentence thousands more to entirely preventabl­e deaths.

Natasha Touesnard is the executive director of the Canadian Associatio­n of People who Use Drugs. Dr. Christy Sutherland is a family doctor and diplomat of the American Board of Addiction Medicine who works in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Lindsey Richardson is an associate professor in the department of sociology at University of British Columbia and a research scientist at the BC Centre on Substance Use.

 ?? LARS HAGBERG/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILES ?? Carolyn Bennett, the new minister of mental health and addictions, must overhaul Canada's current approach to psychoacti­ve drugs, three advocates say.
LARS HAGBERG/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES FILES Carolyn Bennett, the new minister of mental health and addictions, must overhaul Canada's current approach to psychoacti­ve drugs, three advocates say.

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