Kayta Korol is a graduate student in community health at the University of Northern British Columbia.
Dr. Sarah Fraser is a family physician and author of Humanity Emergency: Poetry of a medical student.
Last week, the city council of Vancouver unanimously voted to request that the federal government allow the decriminalization of drug use in this west coast city. Cannabis was legalized in Canada in 2018, but federal law still considers it a crime to use illicit drugs (for example, cocaine or fentanyl). This is despite increasing evidence that decriminalizing the use of such drugs would benefit those with addiction and society as a whole.
Many of us grew up repeatedly being told that we should not do drugs. The idea that drugs are bad, and that drug policies exist to protect us from chemical danger, is perhaps intuitive. Since President Nixon declared the war on drugs nearly half a century ago, the general global response to drug use has been focussed on enforcement. Zero tolerance. Since the Nixon years, drug-related incarcerations have increased. But has this approach actually worked to stop people from being harmed by drugs? The short answer is no. Enforcement-based drug policies were not actually based on evidence.
Between 2016 and 2018, an average of 10 Canadians died every day from an illicit drug overdose. During the worst pandemic in modern times, drug-related overdoses and deaths in Canada continue to rise. Until now, Canada’s drug policies have remained relatively unquestioned. This is despite successes observed with alternative approaches in other countries decades prior to now.
Portugal and the decriminalization of drug use
Portugal was the first country to decriminalize all drug use. In the 1990s, as with many parts of the world, heroin use and associated infectious diseases in Portugal was a major health problem. At the same time, the punitive, zero-tolerance approach for addressing addiction was not working. Portuguese policymakers looked for another answer.
In 2001, the country passed a law making drug use and possession of up to a ten-day supply an administrative offense rather than a criminal one. In doing so, the Portuguese government decriminalized all drug use and possession, heroin included. Trafficking and selling drugs would still be considered crimes, but using drugs would instead be punishable by fines or community service, rather than jail time.
Since then, other countries have followed suit. Switzerland changed their laws so that rather than focussing on the individual user, large-scale traffickers are targeted. The Swiss government now has more resources to work with financial experts to detect abnormal money laundering from the drug trade. Drugs have also been decriminalized in Norway, where cases have been moved from the justice system to the health department. Even President Elect Joe Biden argued in favour of decriminalizing drugs in the final presidential debate.
“No one should be going to jail for a drug problem. They should be going to rehabilitation…,” he said.
Major police organizations in Canada are advocating for change. Chief Const. Adam Palmer is the President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. In an interview with the CBC in July of this year, Palmer argued in favour of drug decriminalization.
“Arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective. It does not save lives,” he said.
Effects of drug decriminalization
There are known benefits to decriminalizing drug use. A 2017 study from The Lancet reviewed drug policies across the world. They found that when intravenous drug use was decriminalized, rates of HIV infections also decreased. Other studies have shown that decriminalizing drug use helps to reduce deaths due to overdose.
The decriminalization of drugs will also help to address systemic racism in Canada. We know, for example, that racialized individuals in Canada more often experience random street checks. We also know that racialized people are incarcerated disproportionately for drug-related offences. As of 2016, 25.5% of people in federal prison in Canada were Indigenous and 8.7% were Black, despite the fact that they make up only 4.8% and 3.5% of the general population, respectively. Drug decriminalization is thus a necessary part of the addressing systemic racism and resulting inequities.
Decriminalization of drug use is harm reduction
Canada’s Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu, has the ability to make these changes. Hadju has been an advocate for harm reduction in the past. In a tweet from earlier this year she said “it has never been more important to provide harm reduction and treatment services to people who use drugs.”
The decriminalization of drugs is a form of harm reduction at the societal level. Following the lead of other nations, and most recently the municipality of Vancouver, advocating for drug decriminalization would help to ensure that people are not persecuted for having an addiction. Drug users should be met with compassion, not criminalization. Their lives are depending on it.