Are all drug users criminals? The debate came up once again in Canada following a request by several public health researchers and police forces dealing with the current devastating opioid crisis. While Oregon has become the first American state to vote for the decriminalization of all drugs, other examples have put into question whether decriminalization can yield positive results on a meaningful level.
Portugal, a model of success?
Portugal emerged from a period of military dictatorship in 1973 and the country’s social instability saw it become an international hub for drug trafficking. The implementation of street drug control policies inspired by the “war against drugs” waged by the United States did not succeed in reducing the number of drug users. In the late 1990s, nearly 1% of the Portuguese population was addicted to heroin and the country recorded the most deaths from drug-related AIDS in the European Union. That’s when the Portuguese public health authorities decided to implement innovative measures in their extrajudicial response to drug addiction. People who possess or use drugs are no longer viewed as criminals, but as individuals in need of help. As expressed by João Goulão, Director General of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, the key factor is the “subject’s relationship with the substance, not the substance itself.”
As of 2001, the public health system took over the care of substance-dependent individuals by offering them rehabilitation services addressing the root causes of their addiction. In 2017, the number of individuals who were addicted to opiates dropped by half and the number of overdose deaths was five times lower than the European average. Through its application of these new measures, Portugal was able to significantly control its drug epidemic within a span of 15 years.
Is Drug Decriminalization Inevitable in Canada?
In August 2020, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, instructed federal prosecutors to avoid prosecuting individuals for simple drug possession. In a communiqué, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) indicated that “where the possession relates to a substance use disorder, prosecution should generally be avoided where the offender is enrolled in a drug treatment court program or a course of treatment provided under the supervision of a health professional”. Portage was at the forefront in advocating for court diversion programs for substance-related offences as early as the 1970s, by hosting conferences and publishing a newsletter in collaboration with Carleton University entitled “Sentencing Matters”.
The provision of care to substance-dependent individuals must be viewed as a public health issue according to experts in the field who firmly believe that strong measures must be implemented in order to bring about change. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a sharp rise in overdose deaths in Canada. The Premier of British Columbia sounded the alarm in August 2020, stating that “criminal prohibitions are ineffective in deterring drug use and criminalization of drug possession leads to both individual and systemic stigma and discrimination that prevents people from seeking services”. The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs also spoke in favour of a bill decriminalizing simple drug possession. Police forces are dealing with an unprecedented crisis in Canada following the arrival of extremely potent synthetic drugs such as fentanyl. Overdoses have increased sharply and police would prefer not to have to chase individuals for drug possession for personal consumption.
Has the legalization of cannabis in 2018 thwarted the parallel market for the substance? Will similar measures need to be applied across the country to eradicate the opioid crisis and aid increasingly imperilled opioid users? Vancouver Kingsway MP Don Davies proposed a bill to that effect on April 15th, 2021, calling on the government to put an end to the public health crisis in British Columbia, where 1700 overdose deaths due to illicit drugs were recorded in 2020, the highest ever number in a single year. While many questions remain, one thing is certain. Adequate attention and resources must be made available to meet the needs created by the ongoing drug epidemic and those who are caught up in it with too often disastrous consequences.
For most people, asking for help is often the most difficult.
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