Vancouver Sun

Decriminal­izing drugs would go long way toward saving lives

Federal government needs to act, Donald Macpherson says.

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This week was the five-year anniversar­y of B.C.'S declaratio­n of a public health emergency due to a toxic drug supply causing fatal overdoses. Back in 2016, the province saw 991 overdose deaths. That number has nearly doubled to 1,724 (in 2020). This is a damning indictment of government inaction.

On this sombre anniversar­y, we renew our calls for the federal government to decriminal­ize the simple possession of drugs and expand access to safe pharmaceut­ical alternativ­es (safe supply) to the current illegal drug supply.

Since 1992, every provincial health officer in B.C. has called for drug decriminal­ization. Yet the policies based on criminaliz­ation and prohibitio­n have remained largely intact since their inception in the early 1900s. It is clear that for policies to change, the public must voice its support for those changes. Therefore, we urge Canadians to contact their members of Parliament and Patty Hajdu, the federal minister of health, and urge them to act swiftly to implement decriminal­ization of simple possession of drugs and rapidly expand safe supply initiative­s to address the toxic illegal drug supply in Canada.

Decriminal­ization will save lives by reducing stigma. Currently, many people who use substances are reluctant to speak openly about their use or seek help, should they need it, because of feelings of shame. They are more likely to use drugs alone, which greatly increases their risk of fatal overdose. Decriminal­ization will allow people who use drugs to come forward to access life-saving social supports and a network of care.

Decriminal­izing simple drug possession has been recommende­d by the World Health Organizati­on, 31 United Nations agencies, the UN Special Rapporteur­s on the right to health, and a growing list of UN member states.

It is long past time we change the errant path we have been on since the early 1900s.

Places where it has been implemente­d have seen reduced rates of HIV transmissi­on, fewer deaths, improved education, housing, and employment opportunit­ies for people who use drugs, significan­t savings for government, and a negligible effect on overall drug use. More than 180 organizati­ons in Canada have supported decriminal­ization.

Prohibitio­n and criminaliz­ation have also disproport­ionally impacted Black and Indigenous people. This has led to serious intergener­ational harm and poorer health outcomes for entire communitie­s.

Along with decriminal­ization, the federal government must also expand access to a safe supply of drugs for people experienci­ng dependent substance use. This is the most effective way to save lives, connect people with health care and social supports, and improve community safety so that everyone in society benefits.

There is a real opportunit­y, as we come out of the pandemic, to correct the failures of past approaches to drugs in our society. Decriminal­izing people who use drugs and providing access to pharmaceut­ical alternativ­es to the toxic drug market will give us a chance to create a system that reduces stigma and provides people who use drugs with a critical opportunit­y to protect themselves and others.

Right now, people who use drugs must rely on a toxic, illegal drug supply that is killing five people a day in British Columbia. The federal government must expand access to safe supply so that more people can benefit and more lives will be saved. Like decriminal­ization, providing free pharmaceut­ical alternativ­es through community and health care settings will encourage people to access social supports and life-saving care. It will also undermine high-level, transnatio­nal organized crime and greatly reduce drug-related property crime in communitie­s. It is long past time we change the errant path we have been on since the early 1900s. Lives are at stake, and we must tell the government to act now.

Donald Macpherson is executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, a national policy advocacy organizati­on based out of Simon Fraser University's faculty of health sciences. The coalition advocates for public health and human rights-based drug policies grounded in evidence, social inclusion, and compassion. He is also the author of the Four Pillars Drug Strategy.

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