In last week's National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis, people who use drugs, their families and harm-reduction workers gathered in dozens of communities for the largest demonstrations for drug decriminalization and safe supply in Canada's history. In Toronto, lead organizers We Grieve Thousands staged a "die-in" and let off smoke bombs in front of Health Canada's offices. Vancouver's event was styled as a parade, complete with floats and a New Orleans-style marching band. Prince George, B.C.'s courthouse was coated in blood-red handprints, symbolizing the complicity of Canada's legal system in the overdose crisis.
While each event took on a distinct style, each of them spoke the same message to Canadians: Wake up, we are dying. As the protesters last week would tell you, ensuring a safe, regulated supply of opioid and stimulant drugs is not just a solution to the crisis, but also a human right.
Symptoms of a policy
Consider the grim circumstances that brought grieving and heartbroken Canadians together last week: An average of 11 preventable overdose deaths occur each day across the nation. People who use drugs are criminalized. Police in cities like Calgary prevent those at risk of overdose from accessing overdose prevention services. Tainted illicit drugs, unpredictable in both potency and content, factor into the majority of Canada's overdose deaths. Alternatives to illicit drugs, like a safe drug supply, are withheld by government, restricted by physicians and demonized in the public's eye. Recently elected Conservative provincial governments in Alberta and Ontario are hostile to lifesaving overdose prevention services.
These are symptoms of a national drug policy unable to address the death and trauma that it indirectly creates.
Canada's four-pillar approach to drug policy, enshrined in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Strategy, is structurally unsound. In the face of widespread fentanyl contamination in the drug supply, and unconscionable grief, every participating National Day of Action event united behind five demands of the federal government. Paramount among these demands was legitimizing and ensuring a "safe supply." Safe supply means providing people at overdose risk with legal, regulated, and/or prescribed access to mind altering drugs that are sought out under much riskier circumstances in an unregulated, criminalized market.
Tragically, safe supply remains absent from Canada's Drugs and Substances Strategy, which means it is missing from Canadian drug policy at the most fundamental, basic level. Safe supply illustrates the futility of a national drug strategy based on law enforcement and drug prohibition, and how impossible it is to address a systemic overdose crisis when regulated alternative drugs are illegal and withheld by government altogether.
What has prevented Canadian decision makers from making safe supply an essential component of the overdose response and drug policy writ large?
"Political suicide" is the fear that a politician or political party has of losing widespread support and confidence from the voting public by proposing actions that are seen as "threatening" to the status quo. Safe supply and the decriminalization of people who use drugs are often used as examples of issues that could alienate political supporters and cost elections. Last year's Liberal Party convention saw a non-binding resolution for the "decriminalization of small amounts of drugs" passed with widespread support from the party's membership, but little support from the party's elite. Recent opinion polls also suggest that less than a majority of Canadians support drug decriminalization.
With Canada's federal election on the horizon, thousands of human lives are hanging in the balance. As far as public health crises go, it's been a very long time since this many human lives rested on the shoulders of the federal government. It's never been more important for the Canadian public to make their politicians recognize how many lives are at stake and show their support for the human rights of people who use(d) drugs.
Portugal is a conservative Western European nation that decriminalized drugs over a decade ago, in the face of increasing HIV and overdose death rates. Portugal's then Prime Minister Antonio Guterres did not see their political career or reputation destroyed, the country did not descend into chaos, and no, the sky over Portugal did not fall, either. What did fall in the wake of Portugal's decriminalization were rates of overdose and HIV contraction. As for Antonio Guterres, he now serves as Secretary-General of the United Nations. Doesn't sound like much of a demotion, does it? Portugal's experience of decriminalization teaches us that "political suicide" is not a foregone conclusion for politicians brave enough to publicly support drug decriminalization.
Political support for safe supply and decriminalization exists across Canada, from major cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, to smaller towns like Red Deer, Alta. and Prince George, B.C. As an indicator of growing support and awareness, the hashtag #safesupply trended across Canada, showing previously unseen support for human rights-based solutions to the overdose epidemic.
While a politician might fear "career suicide," the true costs are measured in human lives. It's only through vocal public support and public pressure that politicians lose their fear and Canada sees a future where safe supply becomes the new status quo. Not a status quo that normalizes alarming rates of overdose death, but one that normalizes the human rights and dignity of people who use drugs.
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Last week's protests sparked a conversation that must continue up until election day and far beyond it, human lives being more important than any political ambition. They were a wake-up call for the Canadian public, but if you have used illicit drugs, or know someone that does, you've heard the sirens blaring for years.
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