On a recent trip to Kelowna, B.C., Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that his government is not considering the legalization of heroin or cocaine to address the overdose epidemic that is killing almost seven Canadians every day.
The public may not realize that there are differences between the decriminalization of a drug, and the legalization of one. Let's differentiate between the two concepts.
Drug decriminalization means that a person will not be prosecuted or charged with a criminal offence for possessing an illegal drug. This implies something crucial: when you decriminalize a drug, you decriminalize the person using it. It means closing the prison cells that have disrupted so many lives and broken up so many families.
Consider the words of Dr. João Goulão, the architect of Portugal's model of drug decriminalization, during his recent visit to Vancouver: "Decriminalization is important because drug users will no longer fear approaching [health-care] responders."
Dr. Goulao also emphasized that drug decriminalization won't eliminate Canada's fentanyl problem, as decriminalization still means drugs will largely be purchased on the street, continuing the consequences of drug prohibition. This is where legalization and regulation are crucial. If demand for opioid drugs is handled by government in a legalized, low threshold, low-barrier setting, demand for unpredictable bootleg fentanyl plummets. Case in point would be the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control's (BCCDC) recent recommendation to distribute prescription hydromorphone (dilaudid) to protect those at risk of overdose.
The federal government's approach has been tried and tested — a failure time and time again.
In other epidemics, governments have distributed large-scale quantities of safe drugs to protect the population at risk. Take for example the H1N1 epidemic in British Columbia, which led to 1 million doses of antiviral drugs being distributed to the province's hospitals, clinics and community health centres. This overdose epidemic requires a similar rationale.
During his recent visit to Kelowna, Prime Minister Trudeau went further to say that the government is "making progress" in reducing overdose deaths, while also admitting that the crisis is spreading across the country.
In the prime minister's words, "border controls, the inspection of small packages, by working with our partners, whether it be the United States or China" is how the Canadian government is approaching this crisis.
On the basis that overdose deaths are increasing in many parts of the country, including Ontario, very little progress has been made. What's more, the federal government's approach has been tried and tested — a failure time and time again.
Canada has used border interdictions for decades in an attempt to stop the influx of illegal drugs.
It hasn't worked to date, and now large quantities of a drug like fentanyl can be smuggled into the country easier than ever before.
Before fentanyl, a substance like heroin was smuggled into the country in large, bulky shipments, making it difficult to conceal, and easier for customs agents to intercept. Despite the added difficulty, border controls never stopped a supply of heroin from entering this country.
Nowadays, fentanyl, with its greater potency and simplicity of production, can flow through the cracks in our border easier then heroin ever could.
Prime Minister Trudeau needs to listen to the people experiencing this horror on a daily basis.
What this crisis requires is an entire reassessment of our national drug policy.
More Canadians are dying of drug overdose than ever before in Canada's history, more than during the worst period of the AIDS epidemic. Your government can't keep up. Unsanctioned overdose prevention sites are "popping up" in Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto to do the work that your government is failing to do.
Justin Trudeau has to wake up and acknowledge the reality of what so many of us are experiencing.
The federal government's response is so far from appropriate, so far from adequate and so far from stemming the tide of death that many of us have lost hope that our government will make the progress necessary to save lives.
What this crisis requires is an entire reassessment of our national drug policy. If it were any other group of people dying, you can be sure our government would take a long, hard at how their decision making was a contributing factor.
During the recent NDP leadership debate, candidate Jagmeet Singh did exactly that, by supporting the decriminalization of all personal drug possession. Let's hope that Justin Trudeau and the other NDP leadership candidates follow his lead. As of right now, the prime minister has shown minimal leadership on this issue. The proof is in the ever-increasing body count.
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