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Laying charges in relation to deaths caused by overdose | Adriana Ortiz

Wednesday, December 01, 2021 @ 10:49 AM | By Adriana Ortiz

Adriana Ortiz %>
Adriana Ortiz
There is no turning a blind eye to the fact that some of society’s most vulnerable individuals have been affected by an opioid crisis. This September, the government of Canada found that “[s]ince the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 6,946 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred.” Sadly, 94 per cent were accidental deaths.

The majority of these deaths occurred in B.C. and Ontario. As a result, police in many Canadian provinces are laying charges of manslaughter or criminal negligence to dealers who supplied drugs to a person who overdosed on opioids.

These statistics are alarming. The criminal justice system is being used ineffectively. This multifaceted issue requires changes well before we set a foot in a courtroom. To suggest otherwise is naïve.

The enforcement of punitive laws for drug offences has not only proven ineffective in curbing drug consumption and trafficking, it also has overloaded an already backlogged criminal justice system.

Concerns may bind and blind us. Desperate searches for a solution to the trafficking of opioids that lead to death by overdose versus the consequences of these types of polices should be approached cautiously. In particular, we should reconsider the polices where there is a potential for serious criminal charges in relation to another person’s overdose. In many occasions, these investigations prove to be futile and to not lead to the dealer. Furthermore, to say investigations are costly is an understatement; the funds are better allocated to assist with substance abuse.

In the United States, statistics on these policies confirm that they do not deter the sale of drugs, which is what is aimed for through punitive policies. Not surprisingly, supply follows the demand, not the other way around. If we were to prosecute the sale and lay manslaughter or criminal negligence charges, there are at least two guaranteed outcomes in my view. First, the dealer prosecuted will most definitely be replaced by another dealer soon after. Secondly, we would be wasting justice system resources. Studies suggest that the threat of punishment does not discourage the commission of these types of offences. Resources would be better spent on alternatives such as prevention, treatment and harm reduction intervention.

Provincial governments may want to focus on alternatives, such as supervised injection and consumption sites, opioid therapy and other alternatives directed at the demand and consumption of drugs. Lastly, medications such as Naloxone, which is a drug that counteracts the effects of an overdose, if given within the first few minutes of the individual becoming symptomatic, should be readily accessible to all Canadians. This would allow for a broad public intervention in any event of overdose. These approaches, although costly, are more fiscally responsible and avoid placing the issue at the courthouse door.

These “tough on crime” polices will not and have not deterred trafficking. What we need is to assist individuals who are consuming hard drugs. If we look closely, there is an outcry for help by individuals grappling with dependence as their life spirals down due to addiction. The policy of serious criminal charges turns the criminal justice system into a tool that will not yield the effects that we are looking for. This type of policy is counterproductive. One of the gravest effects that has been proven in many countries with this type of policy, is that calls for medical assistance in overdose cases are largely reduced. Consequently, this increases the death toll, making this policy hollow apropos to saving lives. Diminishing the possibility of death by overdose should be our top priority as a society and these policies are not the path.

Criminal charges might provide an unrealistic sense of a solution to the problem. Perhaps, we may have a false sense of retribution, but there is not a shred of evidence that this will reduce the consumption or deter the supply of opioids. The best polices should be in relation to comprehensive assistance for consumers. If we reduce the demand, supply will follow. Results will be attained without having to resort to the criminal justice system and the serious consequences it leaves on society as a whole.

Canada’s justice system is admired throughout the world for its humanness. In regards to drug consumption, we are failing struggling individuals. As a society, I think we know it is time to change the surrounding rhetoric. We need to encourage a shift in cultural attitude to end this death toll. Tough on crime polices are not the solution to the painful opioid crisis.

Adriana Ortiz is a criminal defence lawyer and has a GPLLM from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. You can contact her at

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