Decriminalizing drugs would go long way toward saving lives
Federal government needs to act, Donald Macpherson says.
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.