Decriminalization Could Curb Opioid Epidemic, Global Commission Says

By Kelly Burch 10/09/17

The global think tank also called on lawmakers to promote programs like needle exchanges, injection facilities and drug testing.

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Global Commission On Drug Policy
Global Commission On Drug Policy Photo via GCDP

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international think tank of global leaders, has released a position paper on the North American opioid epidemic—issuing recommendations including harm-reduction strategies like needle exchange and decriminalizing drug use.    

According to the report, North America is at a turning point in the way that drug addiction is viewed, and that policymakers should take advantage of that in order to reduce opioid-related deaths. 

“While in recent years media and politicians have been more open to viewing addiction as a public health problem, leadership is needed to turn this into an urgent and commensurate response to the crisis,” the authors wrote. 

The report emphasized that cutting off the opioid supply is not the answer. 

“Initial reactions were to limit prescriptions and to introduce pills that were harder to manipulate,” the report said, adding that this response drove people to use street drugs instead of prescription pills. “Cheaper and more potent opioids—including fentanyl and its derivatives—increasingly appeared on the market.”  

The commission said that the supply of opioids cannot be cut off until supportive measures are put in place, both for people battling addiction and people with chronic pain. “The aim is to achieve the right balance in regulation to provide effective and adequate pain care, while minimizing opportunities for misuse of these medications,” the authors said.

To reduce the harmful impacts of opioids, the commission called on lawmakers to promote needle exchange programs, injection facilities and drug testing. Commission members also called on all areas to legalize medical marijuana. 

In addition, the report emphasized the need for more access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT). “Prejudice against the most effective treatments for opioid addiction—opioid substitution therapy (OST)—has translated into lack of treatment for those in need,” the authors wrote. 

The commission said that the opioid epidemic is a “crisis of despair” that is tied into economic hardship in many areas. The commission was clear that decriminalizing drugs and moving away from incarceration as a solution to drug abuse is critical.

“Do not pursue such offenses so that people in need of health and social services can access them freely, easily, and without fear of legal coercion,” the commission said. The report called on local and state governments to begin this measure de facto even before there are widespread policy changes. 

The Global Commission on Drug Policy is made up of global leaders, including former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.

Michel Kazatchkine, a doctor and commission member, told The Globe and Mail that he hopes the report will push lawmakers in the United States and Canada to take a progressive approach to the crisis. 

"Repression is harmful," he said. "Wherever repressive policies are in place, people will not be in the best condition to access services. There is no way decriminalization will happen at the federal level soon in the U.S., but states or cities can sometimes make decisions for which they do not need federal approval, or for which they will enter into a battle with the federal process, but they still can continue to do things."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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