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By Star Editorial Board, published on The Star

October 10, 2017

It's Time for a Smarter Approach to Drugs: Editorial

The chorus calling on Ottawa to rethink its approach to the epidemic of opioid overdoses sweeping this country is growing louder and more urgent. Two new reports issued this week echo a broad consensus among public health experts: decriminalizing the possession of all drugs is crucial if we’re going to tackle this crisis.

In Ontario, more than two people died from opioid overdoses every day last year – and the rate seems to have risen in 2017. In British Columbia, the problem is even worse.

As part of its response, the Trudeau government has rightly begun to embrace the so-called harm-reduction philosophy, approving several safe-injection sites across the country, including three in Toronto, as well as other forms of addiction therapy.

These programs provide users access to sterile equipment as well as to medical treatment and counseling. They have been shown to save lives, preventing overdoses, decreasing rates of needle-transmitted diseases and giving addicts their best chance at recovery.

But each approval is slow and controversial, in no small part because of the stigma created by our current approach to drug policy. And addicts are less likely to seek help if they feel under threat of arrest. As a result, such sites remain few and far between and too many drug users continue to suffer and die needlessly.

The harm-reduction approach cannot fully succeed until we stop treating people addicted to drugs as criminals, as a new report from the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition argues. The case is hard to dispute. The war on drugs has driven up the cost of policing, contributed to a national crisis of court delays, compounded racial and class inequities and unnecessarily criminalized people living with physical and mental illness. All that, without delivering any of the promised benefits for public health or public safety.

In a separate report, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a consortium of former heads of state and other senior officials, urges Canadian cities and provinces to do what the federal government seems unwilling to do: pursue “de-facto decriminalization” of use and possession of all drugs so that “people in need of health and social services can access them freely, easily, and without fear of punishment.”

Such local responses may be necessary in the immediate term, but Ottawa should think seriously about beginning the long and no doubt difficult process of decriminalization. After all, many of the arguments the Trudeau government has used to justify its welcome effort to legalize pot apply also to broad-based decriminalization.

As the government has pointed out, enforcement of drug crimes is a vast waste of police resources. Fewer than half of the tens of thousands of people arrested annually for drug-related crimes are convicted. Moreover, those who are convicted – disproportionately people of colour, Indigenous people and people living in poverty – end up with criminal records that can profoundly damage their chances of success and drastically increase the likelihood of future, more serious criminality.

The war on drugs has also been a bust when it comes to public health. The evidence suggests prohibitions do little to affect the frequency of drug use. Instead, by stigmatizing users, they discourage those who are addicted from seeking the help they need and make it less likely that such help will be on offer. Since Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs 16 years ago, for instance, the rate of use has stayed the same, while overdose deaths have been reduced by about 80 per cent.

The Trudeau government’s current position on decriminalization is understandable: Ottawa has its hands full with pot. But people are dying of opioid overdoses every day. Many of these deaths are preventable and a consensus has emerged as to how. The government must not glibly dismiss the high human costs of waiting for a more convenient moment.

This article was originally published on The Star on October 5, 2017. 

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