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The case for drug decriminalization in Canada | Serena Eshaghurshan

Friday, April 23, 2021 @ 1:38 PM | By Serena Eshaghurshan

Serena Eshaghurshan %>
Serena Eshaghurshan
In the early 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan uttered the famous phrase “just say no” in response to the United States’ war on drugs. Forty years later, it is patently obvious that such approach does not effectively address substance abuse issues. In my previous article in The Lawyer’s Daily, I discussed the etiology and ramifications of Canada’s opioid crisis, which has disproportionately affected certain marginalized and vulnerable groups within society. The causes of addiction are multifaceted, continuous and complex. In this article, I will discuss the growing movement in favour of drug decriminalization and why such approach would aid in attaining more equitable health and justice outcomes.

Nexus between opioid crisis and pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an insidious impact on perpetuating the opioid crisis, particularly in at-risk populations. Research has demonstrated that the rates of opioid overdoses and fatalities have dramatically increased during the pandemic. According to a recent Ontario report, there was a 38.2 per cent growth in opioid-related fatalities during the first 15 weeks of the pandemic. This means that during this period, there were 695 deaths, with an average of 46 deaths per week. In the 15 weeks preceding the pandemic, there were 503 deaths, with an average of 34 deaths per week. In Manitoba, drug-related deaths increased by 87 per cent in 2020. Likewise, 2020 was the worst year for drug-related deaths in British Columbia.

The staggering increase in drug-related fatalities is caused by several factors. First, current border restrictions have significantly curtailed the importation of narcotics into Canada. The demand for illicit substances far exceeds the available supply. To address the shortfall, drug dealers and traffickers are “cutting” narcotics with cheaper and more dangerous substances, such as benzodiazepines and fentanyl. The reduction in drug purity and the increase use of other toxic substances are highly associated with overdose and death. Second, access to harm reduction sites and outreach services have been limited, which removes a vital protective factor against overdoses and death. In August of last year, the Alberta government closed “North America’s busiest safe consumption site,” despite strong evidence indicating its utility in preventing overdoses and reducing harm to users. Interestingly, this was done on “International Overdose Awareness Day.” Third, more individuals are using illicit substances when they are alone, which significantly increases the risk of adverse or fatal outcomes.

Certain marginalized and vulnerable groups are more susceptible to being adversely affected by the interplay between the opioid crisis and the pandemic. In British Columbia, drug-related deaths among Indigenous peoples increased by 93 per cent between January and May 2020, when compared to the same time frame in the preceding year. Furthermore, another report says that Indigenous people accounted for 16 per cent of the total overdoses in the province; a six per cent increase from 2019. Indigenous peoples have up to three times the rate of opioid-related deaths as compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. Research has demonstrated that the homelessness rate among Indigenous peoples who use drugs is higher than non-Indigenous peoples who use drugs. Furthermore, Indigenous peoples have a reduced likelihood of receiving treatment for substance use.

As I mentioned in a previous article in The Lawyer’s Daily, Indigenous peoples continue to suffer from the effects of colonialism, the residential school system, socioeconomic marginalization, systemic discrimination and systemic attempts to eradicate their culture. The systemic barriers created and perpetuated by such factors result in inequitable access to many arenas that serve as critical components to wellness, including equitable health outcomes. As such, structural reform to the health-care system and related supports are necessary to promote uniform health outcomes in all segments of society.

The state of the law

The increase in drug-related fatalities during the pandemic has facilitated greater social, legal and policy discourse regarding drug reform in Canada. Earlier this month, the NDP drafted a private member’s bill which aims to reform the Criminal Code’s approach to drug offences. This would include removing provisions relating to drug possession, expunging criminal records for drug possession and promoting a tangible means of accessing a “safe supply of medically regulated substances.” Such sentiment is echoed in Vancouver, which has been a hot spot for overdoses and drug-related fatalities during the pandemic.

While current Canadian drug policy has come a long way from the days of “getting tougher on drug crimes,” more can and must be done. As society’s collective understanding of addiction has shifted from stigmatization and criminalization to compassion and rehabilitation, it is high time that legislative and policy reform fully reflect such sentiment. The pandemic has caused an unprecedented period of human suffering, but it has also helped to shed light on the gaps within our legal system that serve as barriers to access to justice outcomes. A push to fully eradicate criminal connotations with personal possession will create more space to aid in recovery, acceptance and sobriety.

Going forward, we must see addiction for what it really is — a public health problem, and not a moral or personal failing.  

Serena Eshaghurshan is 2021 J.D. candidate at the University of Calgary. Prior to law school, she received a bachelor of arts in psychology at the University of Calgary.

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