Decriminalisation Can Save Lives

Canadians should end the stigma towards addiction in order to fight the overdose epidemic

(Nicole Kwit)

In 1971 the U.S. government unveiled a wave of policies aimed at containing the propagation of narcotics like cocaine, heroin, and cannabis and minimizing addiction rates by deterring people from using through punitive enforcement.

In the decades that followed, the effects of the War on Drugs have been nothing short of disastrous for North America. The criminalization of the possession and use of narcotics was a woefully myopic stance for the government to take, and resulted in the misallocation of what some claim to be trillions of dollars’ worth of resources. It has not only failed to accomplished what it set out do but has aggravated a number of issues such as poverty, violent crime, systemic racism, and health care, all which need to be addressed independently.

Now, with the introduction of fentanyl to the illicit drug economy, North America is experiencing a new opioid crisis. The fact that people are dying every day has given our society a reason to re-examine the legitimacy and effectiveness of criminalizing the use and possession of narcotics.

At the beginning of August, the B.C. Coroners Service released a report to the public that tallied every recorded illicit drug-related death in B.C. between Jan. 1, 2007 and June 30, 2017. The report contains some shocking figures which clearly indicate that the rate of drug-related mortality is skyrocketing in correlation with the growing momentum of the fentanyl opioid crisis.

In 2007, 202 people died from drug overdoses throughout the year. In 2015 that number rose to 519 deaths. Last year, it reached an unprecedented high of 978 overdose-related deaths.

As of June 30, 780 people have died this year alone, which means that 2017’s death toll is almost certain to surpass all previously reported.

Proponents of more progressive tactics, including B.C. Chief Medical Officer Perry Kendall, point to Portugal as an ideal model of what a country that decriminalizes illicit drugs can accomplish in the way of treating addiction. While it is still illegal to produce and sell hard drugs like cocaine or heroin in Portugal, using them has been completely legal since 2001. This has allowed the country to focus their efforts and resources on treatment and rehabilitation rather than enforcement and policing.

If you are caught using illicit drugs in Portugal, they will be confiscated and you will be mandated to attend a meeting with a “Dissuasion Commission” consisting of a social worker, a psychiatrist, and a lawyer—but you will not face any criminal punishment. The big-picture results that Portugal has seen include a decrease in the number of adolescent users of hard drugs, an increase in all people attending addictions treatment, a reduction of drug-related HIV cases, and most importantly, a decrease in street drug overdose deaths.

Prohibition is ineffective, plain and simple. The stigma towards addiction that has resulted from these backwards policies has done so much harm that we as a society need to realize that human lives are at stake. We work to challenge the bias, and end the ridiculous and contrived 40 year-long game of cops and robbers. It hasn’t accomplished anything positive, and it never will.

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