Pubdate: Fri, 06 Oct 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star
Page: A14


The chorus calling on Ottawa to decriminalize possession of all drugs
is growing louder and more urgent. The government should listen

The chorus calling on Ottawa to rethink its approach to the epidemic
of opioid overdoses sweeping this country is growing louder and more
urgent. Two new reports issued this week echo a broad consensus among
public health experts: decriminalizing the possession of all drugs is
crucial if we're going to tackle this crisis.

In Ontario, more than two people died from opioid overdoses every day
last year - and the rate seems to have risen in 2017. In British
Columbia, the problem is even worse.

As part of its response, the Trudeau government has rightly begun to
embrace the so-called harm-reduction philosophy, approving several
safe-injection sites across the country, including three in Toronto,
as well as other forms of addiction therapy.

These programs provide users access to sterile equipment as well as to
medical treatment and counselling. They have been shown to save lives,
preventing overdoses, decreasing rates of needle-transmitted diseases
and giving addicts their best chance at recovery.

But each approval is slow and controversial, in no small part because
of the stigma created by our current approach to drug policy. And
addicts are less likely to seek help if they feel under threat of
arrest. As a result, such sites remain few and far between and too
many drug users continue to suffer and die needlessly.

The harm-reduction approach cannot fully succeed until we stop
treating people addicted to drugs as criminals, as a new report from
the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition argues. The case is hard to
dispute. The war on drugs has driven up the cost of policing,
contributed to a national crisis of court delays, compounded racial
and class inequities and unnecessarily criminalized people living with
physical and mental illness. All that, without delivering any of the
promised benefits for public health or public safety.

In a separate report, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a
consortium of former heads of state and other senior officials, urges
Canadian cities and provinces to do what the federal government seems
unwilling to do: pursue "de-facto decriminalization" of use and
possession of all drugs so that "people in need of health and social
services can access them freely, easily and without fear of

Such local responses may be necessary in the immediate term, but
Ottawa should think seriously about beginning the long and no doubt
difficult process of decriminalization. After all, many of the
arguments the Trudeau government has used to justify its welcome
effort to legalize pot apply also to broad-based decriminalization.

As the government has pointed out, enforcement of drug crimes is a
vast waste of police resources. Fewer than half of the tens of
thousands of people arrested annually for drug-related crimes are
convicted. Moreover, those who are convicted - disproportionately
people of colour, Indigenous people and people living in poverty - end
up with criminal records that can profoundly damage their chances of
success and drastically increase the likelihood of future, more
serious criminality.

The war on drugs has also been a bust when it comes to public health.
The evidence suggests prohibitions do little to affect the frequency
of drug use. Instead, by stigmatizing users, they discourage those who
are addicted from seeking the help they need and make it less likely
that such help will be on offer. Since Portugal decriminalized
possession of all drugs16 years ago, for instance, the rate of use has
stayed the same, while overdose deaths have been reduced by about 80
per cent.

The Trudeau government's current position on decriminalization is
understandable: Ottawa has its hands full with pot. But people are
dying of opioid overdoses every day. Many of these deaths are
preventable and a consensus has emerged as to how. The government must
not glibly dismiss the high human costs of waiting for a more
convenient moment.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt