Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Drug addiction should be a health, not criminal issue

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

Canada is currently in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis.

The two most western provinces and territories — British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and the Northwest Territories — have been hit especially hard, likely due to their relative proximity to China, where much of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is produced.

According to Government of Canada statistics from 2016, B.C. and Yukon each had more than 15 opioid overdoses per 100,000 people, while Alberta and N.W.T. each had between 10 and 14.9 overdoses per 100,000 people.

This epidemic had led to a recognition in some quarters that the current approach of criminalizing drug use hasn’t been remotely effective in preventing deaths.

Safe injection sites, which will soon be coming to Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge are a positive development in handling opioid addiction as a health, rather than criminal, matter, but if we want to address the root cause of drug overdoses, we ought to take the bold step of decriminalizing drug use full stop.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh acknowledged this bitter reality when he said that personal drug use should be treated as a “social justice” rather than “criminal justice” matter.

Critics will say that decriminalizing drugs normalizes their use, but this objection misses the mark.

Decriminalizing drugs, as opposed to legalizing them, simply shifts the burden of dealing with them from police officers and lawyers to public health officials.

When people are physically addicted to substances like heroin or fentanyl, illegality is not going to stop them from using.

The question is whether they’re going to share needles, and risk contracting HIV, buy impure drugs off the streets to get their fix, risking a fentanyl overdose, or engage in other criminal activities to get money for their addiction.

Decriminalization allows public health officials — people who actually study drugs and their effects — the latitude to deal with the opioid crisis in the most effective way possible.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, arguably the epicentre of Canada’s opioid crisis, has taken this approach.

Vancouver’s Crosstown Clinic not only provides opioid users with a place to do their drugs safely, but also prescribes them free medical doses to avoid overdoses and allow addicts to spend their money on necessities.

Naturally, there are many people uncomfortable with giving addicts their fix, but once one thinks about drug abuse as a health issue, it’s a perfectly sensible approach.

It’s not as if anyone can walk into the Crosstown Clinic and receive free heroin. They must demonstrate a need.

These are people who tried heroin alternatives like suboxone and methadone and still couldn’t get clean.

Not only does this program prevent needless deaths, but it allows the most severe addicts to function as members of society, rather than outcasting them as criminals and junkies.

Drug policy is in the federal government’s jurisdiction, so the provinces are somewhat constrained, but the Crosstown Clinic shows that municipal governments, with the province’s blessing, can do more to address the opioid crisis.

The Alberta Government acknowledges the need for harm reduction in its opioid crisis response, which includes safe consumption sites, peer support and drug substitution therapy.

This is a solid first step in the right direction, but the Alberta NDP should take the bold next step and do what it can as a provincial government to stop treating addicts as criminals.

If enough provinces take B.C.’s approach, then the federal government, which already supports supervised consumption sites, will take note and hopefully take steps towards reducing the bloated Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

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