Canada’s Decriminalisation Experiment No Match For Toxic Drug Supply

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Canada’s Decriminalization Experiment No Match For Toxic Drug Supply

A Canadian experiment to decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs could reduce stigma and police run-ins for addicts but does little to tackle a bigger problem of overdose deaths from drugs adulterated with lethal ingredients.

The province of British Columbia is at the epicentre of a drug poisoning crisis that has already killed more than 32,000 Canadians since 2016.

It began a three-year pilot programme in which people carrying less than 2.5 grams of drugs such as meth and heroin will not be prosecuted. But doctors and advocates for drug users argue preventing overdose deaths also requires expanding a “safe supply” of drugs that allows those at risk of overdose to legally obtain banned substances through prescriptions.

In part due to disruptions in supply stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, street drugs are increasingly laced with toxic or unknown ingredients, resulting in drug users overdosing and dying.

“There (are) no measures involved in decriminalization that address the fact that the supply is very, very variable and volatile and dangerous,” said Gillian Kolla, a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.

He said; “If you want to have an impact on the overdose crisis you are going to have to target the supply.”

The thinking behind safe supply programs and other “harm reduction” initiatives is that people who use drugs will continue to do so and offering them a safer option keeps them alive. Proponents say “they are not meant as an alternative to treatments for addiction but in addition to them.”

In part, it reflects a broader shift away from criminal charges as a deterrent to drug use and a move toward treating addiction as a health issue instead.

Still, expanding safe supply on a large scale would mean a major change in the government’s approach to illicit substances, involving it in providing and regulating now-illegal drugs.

Critics worry it could backfire by encouraging drug use and result in the drugs being diverted for sale on the street, something clinicians prescribing drugs say is rare.

Studies show the programmes can be successful. A 2021 study by the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use of 42 participants in a Vancouver programme that distributed hydromorphone tablets – an opioid – found it reduced street drug use and overdose risk and improved health, well-being and pain management.

A 2016 Canadian Institutes of Health Research study found a 67% reduction in illicit drug use in a group treated with prescription heroin, or diacetylmorphine, and a 47.7% reduction in a group treated with the opioid methadone.

But not everyone in Canada favours that approach: Alberta, a province with a conservative government that neighbours British Columbia, has emphasized a “recovery-oriented” approach to addiction that favours more abstinence-based treatment.

Under that approach, people with addictions are encouraged to enter residential treatment centres and wean off substances.

The leader of the opposition Conservative party, Pierre Poilievre had said he would end B.C.’s plan if he were prime minister. He argued that de facto decriminalization has been in place in B.C. for years and had been “a complete disaster” and “hell on earth.”

Police in British Columbia file thousands of drug possession charges annually.



Reuters/Oyenike Oyeniyi

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