OP-ED: The Opioid Crisis as an Election Issue

by Sam Pevalin

Since 2016, more than 10,300 people in Canada have died from an opioid overdose. Although 94% of these deaths are by accident, the number continues to grow. Fortunately, there is consensus among the three major parties that this constitutes a serious problem, and something should be done about it. Where the parties differ and partisanship comes into the picture, however, is their responses to it. For instance, the Federal Liberals have moved drug policy from the Department of Justice to the department of Health and have expanded access to safe injection sites. The Conservative party has critiqued this approach, stating that they would instead go after drug traffickers. While the NDP wants to investigate the role that pharmaceutical companies have played and make them pay for it. However, only the Green party is calling for a solution that has broad, bi-partisan support among experts – the decriminalization of all drugs.

Let’s be clear – there is no one-size-fits-all magic solution to ending the opioid crisis. It will take a wide range of policies and reforms, but decriminalizing drugs is an important part of the puzzle. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, the UN Secretary-General, and the heads of UNAIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have called on member-states to decriminalize the possession of drugs. While in Canada, centre-right former B.C. health minister Terry Lake and both Toronto and Montreal’s health authorities are calling for the decriminalization of all drugs.

Decriminalization doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to buy an eight ball of blow at your local convenience store and it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone will be walking around high as a kite. In fact, if people aren’t already doing lines in the bathroom during their break they probably won’t be after decriminalization – the toughness of a country’s laws on drugs has no impact on the rates of usage. What drug decriminalization would do instead, is treat drug possession like most speeding tickets – a non-criminal offence that often results in a minor fine.

This approach treats the opioid epidemic as what it is – a health crisis. Arresting someone for the possession of drugs does nothing to help them deal with their addiction or the reasons they became addicted in the first place. Instead, addicts in prison who do not receive treatment – and most of them don’t – are at a drastically increased risk of overdose after being released. Considering the fact that people who have a family history of substance abuse, are victims of sexual abuse, or suffer from psychiatric problems are at the highest risk of addiction, criminalizing drug possession only further perpetuates the cycle of marginalization. Rather, decriminalizing drugs would decrease the costs associated with their enforcement which could instead be invested in counselling and treatment, rather than keeping someone behind bars.

We know this is the case because in 2001, Portugal did it. This came along with a host of other reforms, including increased spending on drug treatment, but since 2001, drug-related HIV infections have dropped by over 90%; the number of people in prison for drug offences fell from 44% of the general prison population to 21%; the number of adults who have done drugs in the past year has steadily declined since then; and the number of people receiving drug-treatment went from 23,600 to 38,000.

With bi-partisan support among experts and a record of having worked in another country, it’s time Canada decriminalized all drugs.

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