Canada faces its own opioid crisis. It should decriminalize

Pop-up injection site co-ordinator Sarah Blyth with an overdose naloxone kit in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in January 2018. (JOHN LEHMANN/For The Washington Post)
Pop-up injection site co-ordinator Sarah Blyth with an overdose naloxone kit in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in January 2018. (JOHN LEHMANN/For The Washington Post)

In July, the Canadian province of British Columbia experienced its fifth straight month with more than 100 overdose deaths — and its third above 170 lives lost.

Globally, the World Health Organization reports approximately 500,000 deaths from drugs, over 70 percent of them tied to opioids. In Canada, from January 2016 through December 2019, more than 15,000 people died from apparent opioid-related causes. In 2019 alone, there were over 21,000 “suspected opioid-related overdoses” across nine provinces and territories, excluding Quebec (for which data wasn’t provided). The opioid crisis clearly persists at home and abroad.

The covid-19 pandemic has further complicated existing challenges, including ensuring users have access to a safe supply, stigma-free communities and treatment programs, should they wish to access them. While no policy or program is a panacea, evidence-based measures can reduce harm and save lives. One such measure is the decriminalization of drugs, which evidence suggests facilitates treatment for those who want it, helps efficiently direct scarce health-care and justice-system resources, and ultimately saves lives.

Canada isn’t pursuing such a policy, but it should — immediately.

In a recent interview, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rebuffed calls for the decriminalization of narcotics, inaccurately implying those who advocate for it suggest it’s a “silver bullet”. No one says it is. But it’s clever political cover to caricature and pivot to other solutions — as if they were mutually exclusive — as Trudeau did in focusing on a safe drug supply (which is also a good idea).

The prime minister’s opposition to decriminalization is inconsistent with his pretense of caring about evidence-based policymaking. But his intransigency in the face of the facts is consistent with his record on the issue. As reported by Travis Lupick, in 2015, before he was prime minster, Trudeau visited the University of British Columbia, where he voiced his support for safe injection sites but rejected the logical corollary of decriminalization.

Journalist Sam Fenn asked the Liberal leader, “What do you have to say about the prohibition of heroin, crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine?” Trudeau replied, “I disagree with loosening any of the prohibition on harder drugs”, continuing “I think that there is much that we can and should be doing around harm reduction. … And I am firm on the fact marijuana needs to be controlled and regulated and that prohibition isn’t working. But I’m not in favor of loosening restrictions on harder drugs”.

Fenn pressed Trudeau, suggesting — correctly — that experts indicate ending prohibitions on drugs would serve harm reduction. “Then I’ll allow them, academics, to play with definitions. I believe in harm reduction, but I don’t believe in decriminalizing harder drugs”, said Trudeau.

So it’s no surprise that now that he’s prime minister, Trudeau continues to refuse to make the evidence-based decision to decriminalize narcotics, as has been recommended by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, Canada’s police chiefs, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, the premier of British Columbia and Trudeau’s own party. Federal prosecutors have even been told to limit prosecutions of possession charges.

To his credit, Trudeau supports safe injection sites, and the federal government recently funded two of them in Toronto. Ottawa is also funding pilot treatment programs while working on safe supply efforts and other measures. But those efforts and measures aren’t enough.

Alongside the prime minister’s objection to decriminalization in and of itself, there are political concerns. Decriminalization cannot exist in a vacuum. Canada is a federation, and without the provinces on board, federal decriminalization efforts could be complicated or undermined. Municipalities will need to be prepared. Treatment programs and those who deliver them will need to be put in order. Yet none of these points is a reason for decriminalization to not be pursued.

Electorally, some assume that decriminalization would spell political doom. I don’t buy it. For one, there’s plenty of political cover by way of high-profile supporters of decriminalization, plus a minority Parliament chock full of members on the left (and perhaps the right, should they be feeling brave and bold and smart) who’d back a good-faith effort. More to the point, we elect members of Parliament to lead, and we expect governments to do so. Courageous leadership means leading opinion instead of following it.

Someday, drugs will be decriminalized in Canada — if not by this prime minister, then by another. But the sooner the law changes, the sooner harm will be reduced, and the more lives will be saved. If Trudeau cannot or will not come up with a plan to get this work done as prime minister, then the country deserves a new one.

David Moscrop is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa.

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