Addictions experts advise for decriminalization of personal drug use

It has been a year of drug policy change for Canada and many drug addictions experts are saying that this should just be the start. Those who work within addictions and frontline health services are looking towards the decriminalization of all drugs. This is seen not only as a step in solving the current opioid crisis which is strangling the country but also as the first step in refocusing Canada’s approach to drug use, from criminal issue to health issue.

Advocates for the change look to Portugal for data to backup the idea, as Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001. This change meant that anyone who is caught with a small amount of any kind of drug (10 days use or less, and no signs of trafficking) will possible face fines or a referral to a treatment programme, but not jail. This was about a huge administrative change, with the focus being on health care; assessment of the use, is it problematic, is there an underlying condition which can be treated?

At the same time as decriminalizing drug use Portugal also changed the responsibility for drug policy to be in the hands of the minister of health, rather than the ministry of justice. However this change does not mean all drugs are legalized, far from it. Portugal has a total ban on the cultivation of any drugs, including cannabis. Anyone who is caught with more than a 10 days supply of drugs is still treated as a trafficker and criminally prosecuted.

This change in 2001 has so far had meaningful positive impact on Portugal with recorded drug use going down among young people as well as injection drug users. A huge part of this, and what addictions experts want here in Canada, is the destigmatization of drug use, which allows for front line workers to make sure users are not overdosing as well as making contact with users which means more opportunity to get help for those who need it.

“People who start to struggle with substances don’t come forward to tell somebody who might be able to help them, not only because of the stigma that’s attached to it, but literally that their substance use makes them a criminal in this country. That’s not OK,” said Dr. Hakique Virani, an addiction and public health specialist at the University of Alberta.

It must be noted however that though things have improved in Portugal it is not all about the decriminalization, as the decriminalization coincided with a huge increase in the accessible drug treatment.

Here in Canada the issue has been brought up by The Canadian Public Health Association which released a statement in the fall of 2017 that made it clear that the current approaches to diminish the Canadian drug problem, are not working. The association is advocating for the decriminalization of possession of small quantities as well as the sale and trafficking of small quantities by young people. The need to look toward decriminalization was echoed by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Virani also pointed out, at an expert forum hosted by the Alberta Liberals, that most do not understand the toxicology of the drugs that they are talking about. Those who do know about toxicology understand that the line between what substances are criminalized and those which are not does not necessarily make sense from a medical standpoint. Virani used the differences between alcohol and cannabis to illustrate his point as alcohol has significantly more negative medical side effects then the recently legalized cannabis.

“People who start to struggle with substances don’t come forward to tell somebody who might be able to help them, not only because of the stigma that’s attached to it, but literally that their substance use makes them a criminal in this country. That’s not OK,” Virani said.

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