CHALLENGE: ACCESS TO TREATMENT AND REDUCING STIGMA SOLUTION: DECRIMINALIZATION
Scott Bernstein, director of policy with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, says he is aware of jurisdictions such as the one in Portugal which have decriminalized opioid use, but says he doesn’t expect to see an exact replica unveiled in Canada anytime soon.
“Ultimately, we’re choosing to address the problem not through a health-based angle but rather a criminal justice one,” he said, adding that when we criminalize people for using drugs or selling small amounts to fund their own addiction in Canada, barriers to help are created.
However, rather than replicate what Portugal is doing, Bernstein suggests Canada is better off to review their model and learn from it.
He said removing the criminal law is helpful, but a second step could see more supportive services, expanded treatment and education.
What is needed is a Canadian-tailored program that takes advantage of and builds on our public health system and other services, he said.
Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre in Sydney, N.S., feels the Portugal model is a perfect fit for Canada. She likes that the focus there is not on justice for the person who has only small amount of drugs in their possession, but instead is on helping treat their addiction.
In this war against drugs, Porter believes we are failing in Atlantic Canada and that in order to move forward we have to look at substance disorders as a health and social issue. Portugal looks at a drug user as a patient that is sick, she said, adding “That’s how we see it here (at the Ally Centre)… I think Portugal got it right.”
WHAT IMPACT COULD IT HAVE?
Porter believes a move to decriminalize opioid addiction in Canada could go much further than an opportunity for better access to treatment. She says it would also impact the impressions of the wider community – those directly affected by addiction and those who do not have a personal connection to the issue – because it could alleviate some of the stigma associated with addition.
While she believes stigma is getting better, she says this could be a real game changer.
“Some say (stigma) is worse,” she said. “It all depends where you’re sitting.”
Working closely with individuals with substance use disorders, she and other staff at the Ally Centre stories daily about how people living with addiction are not allowed in certain stores or are stared at in treatment line ups.
In these cases, she says it can be hard to believe the stigma has been lifted much.
However, seeing reactions and what’s happening around the opioid crisis federally and provincially, Porter says those in power are recognizing more and more that stigma kills and are taking a stance towards it, Porter said.
“We need the broader community to hear that. That’s where these people live. That’s who needs to be more compassionate and understanding.”
Bernstein agrees that any step towards decriminalizing individuals who are living with addiction would help with the challenge of stigma.
Once a person identifies someone as a drug user, he says their perception of that person changes. It comes to a point where in some cases a pharmacist or doctor will question if they want that client or patient, he said.
“You label them a criminal and run them through a system moral based.”
Bernstein said there’s also some stigma in police departments and social services which need to be addressed.
“My thought is we could decriminalize to solve that,” he said.
— Sharon Montgomery-Dupe
The ideas we’ve explored over the last four weeks have shone a light on the work that's making a
difference in our communities. From decriminalization to
effective harm reduction programs
like P.E.I.'s trailblazing hepatitis C strategy, solutions
with impact are bubbling to the top. Read on to explore these examples of innovative ideas from our own