Can Decriminalizing Drugs Solve Canada's Opioid Crisis?

Can Decriminalizing Drugs Solve Canada's Opioid Crisis?

By Paul Gaita 02/23/17

During the National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis in Canada, protesters called for an end to drug prohibition. 

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As opioid-related overdose deaths continue to mount in nearly every province in Canada, harm reduction workers, health advocates and even some members of Parliament are urging the government to consider the legalization of hard drugs, including heroin.

The We Talk, They Die protest held in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, February 21 – the National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis in Canada – featured an array of individuals whose lives have been intimately affected by Canada's opioid crisis, from current drug users to harm reduction supporters and HIV/AIDs advocates. The main focus of the protest was to not only call attention to the overdose epidemic, but also call for an end to drug prohibition, which protestors said is one of its primary causes.

Ending prohibition could help current opioid drug users on multiple levels, according to Matt Johnson, spokesperson for the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance. Removing the possibility of arrest could steer users to safe, medically monitored environments like Providence Health Care's Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver, which provides legal prescription of medical-grade heroin in a doctor-assisted clinical setting, or Insite, the first legal supervised injection site in North America.

Decriminalization might also remove the stigma of shame that comes with drug addiction and encourage people to seek out treatment. As Johnson noted, maintaining prohibition policies only promotes a situation in which "the people who are caught up in using get punished." The notion has even taken root in Parliament, where Vancouver MPs Hedy Fry and Don Davies have both called for expanded discussion on legalization.

Supporters point to positive examples of legalization efforts, such as in Portugal where decriminalization of low-level possession and use of drugs in 2001 resulted in fewer drug arrests and no significant increase in drug use, as well as a drop in use among adolescents.

Physicians have also reported that patients at safe injection sites like Crosstown have made major strides in turning their lives around. According to lead physician Scott MacDonald, "We've seen patients at Crosstown reconnect with their families or complete school, and many folks are working part-time or full-time."

But there are a myriad of roadblocks standing between advocates of prohibition repeal and actual legislation to roll back that policy. Safe injection sites have taken a frustratingly long time to find approval by the government; currently, there are three such sites pending in Toronto. Government policies regarding coverage for opioid medications, including those used as substitutes like OxyNEO, have also forced doctors to increase prior approval time for patients to receive that medication, spurring many users to seek out drugs at the street level.

Meanwhile, opioid deaths have begun to escalate outside of the major metropolitan areas, including isolated communities like the remote Timiskaming District, with its population of less than 33,000 individuals. Statistics like that have Matt Johnson worried. "It's my friends who are dying," he said. "It's my community that's dying."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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