03/09/2017 05:12 EST | Updated 03/09/2017 05:12 EST

We Must Legalize Drugs To Fight Opioids

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Governments in Canada and the US were to slow to respond to the horrors being caused by misuse of prescription painkillers. But they are now doing so even as advocates press them to do more, more quickly. Yet Prime Minister Trudeau has just announced that he has no plans to legalize non-medical use of drugs beyond marijuana. This is a bluntness he may regret.

Responsible voices are taking a public health perspective on the opioid crisis rather than seeing the criminal law as any solution. There aren't cries to arrest users and lock then up as a means of ending the epidemic. Rather, actions are being taken, some of which require changes to the law, to address the emergency and in the name of "harm reduction": naloxone is being distributed to immediately deal with overdoses, more safe injection sites are being opened up, good Samaritan laws are being passed so that people can call for help for an overdose without fearing prosecution and so forth. Lately, there are increasing demands for more drugs to be legalized as a major element in confronting this epidemic. The Prime Minister's statement seems to turn aside these pleas.

The War on Drugs has been a failure. It has not succeeded in its main goal: to end the drug trade. Rather, it has created an illicit market with huge social and economic costs to society: unjust incarceration, an untaxed industry run by thugs, tainted substances, and exploited children.

What is the path away from criminalization amid the calls to legalize, generally, and the urgent need to address the opioid epidemic, in particular? In fact, there are three sets of challenges each of which requires a different strategy. The first involves marijuana. That drug will be legalized and regulated in Canada in the next few years. As marijuana is legalized we'll learn lessons, not only in terms of that drug, but in terms of how to regulate non-medical use of drugs generally.

The second involves a variety of drugs which are receiving less attention because the spotlight is so focussed on marijuana and opioids: such substances as cocaine, LSD, crystal meth etc. They, too, can be dangerous, including being tainted by those in the illicit market. These drugs give rise to a range of issues (what would be the source of legal supply?) and may come to be regulated in different ways because of patterns of use, risk involved, availability of legal markets and so forth. It could also be that the path away from criminalization, at least for some of them, could be staged: first, decriminalization (ie, no sanctions for possession and use); then, after a period for assessment, legalization and regulation.

The third focusses on opioids. Here the central question should be: what does the public health approach require to confront this epidemic? If the health community determines that a course of action is required then any legal barriers which exist should not stand in the way and should be removed. If the Prime Minister wants to characterize these changes as "harm reduction" rather than "legalization" so be it. An immediate example is the provision of medical grade heroin (an opioid) to some of those who are dependent; an option which has existed in Switzerland for some years.

As experts determine such availability is the right course for some individuals any legal and other roadblocks should be ended.

Legalization of all non medical use of drugs is an attainable goal. But confronting the opioid crisis is an urgent and unprecedented call to action. Public health experts and their activist allies are leading the way. Let's not get caught up in complicated and protracted arguments about legalization of all drugs. Let's focus on public health experts telling us what is needed to face the opioid crisis in the name of "harm reduction" or otherwise. . Let's remove legal barriers that stand in the way. The alarm bells are ringing. Prime Minister - please rethink your position.

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