Ottawa should listen to police chiefs. Drug use is a health care problem, not a crime

Posted on July 13, 2020 in Health Debates

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Theglobeandmail.Com – Opinion/Editorials
July 12, 2020.   The Editorial Board

Opioid overdoses killed 15,393 people in Canada from the start of 2016 through the end of 2019. That’s almost one death every two hours. Tens of thousands more required emergency care.

This health crisis has faded from view during the coronavirus pandemic, but it is far from over. At the epicentre in British Columbia, it is deadlier than ever. In May, 170 people died of illicit drug toxicity – by far the worst month on record.

Against the massive threat of COVID-19, Canada marshalled an all-in response. The cost was huge – an economic shutdown and an eye-popping federal deficit – but it has been worth it. As of last Friday, the virus had killed 8,799 people in Canada, the third-lowest death rate among Group of Seven countries. In the past several weeks, fewer than two dozen people a day have died, compared with several hundred each day in the spring.

Canada’s battle against the coronavirus shows we can douse a health crisis. It’s time to put a similar effort into the overdose crisis. There are no easy answers – and there is no single solution – but there are many policies at the ready, if we are willing to be bold.

Decriminalization of drug possession is one immediate measure. It is an idea that political leaders have rejected, but which has been widely backed by leading health officials, and almost a majority of Canadians.

As of last Thursday, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police added its support.

The group’s first conclusion is that substance-use disorders are a public-health challenge. It called on Ottawa to establish a task force to make decriminalization a reality. Police argue that “new and innovative approaches” are necessary to stem overdose deaths. Arresting people, the police concluded, “has proven to be ineffective.”

It is always important to explain what decriminalization actually means. First, this is nothing like cannabis, which was legalized in 2017, and is now legal and regulated like alcohol and tobacco. Decriminalization of drugs such as illegal opioids, heroin and cocaine does not mean they will be available for sale at retail stores.

What decriminalization does mean is if a person is found in possession of small amounts for personal use, the result would not be a criminal record, jail time and the many ills that follow. Instead, the person would be turned toward help in the health care system.

There is a cresting wave of support for decriminalization, and its benefits for society.

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