Decriminalization and safe supply are key for harm reduction: Opinion

Feb 23, 2023

A recent editorial published by the McGill Daily and authored by Yunjie Zhang discussed recent efforts to address Canada’s ongoing opioid crisis, as well as the essential roles of decriminalization and safe supply in harm reduction in Montreal.

According to data released by the federal government, there were 32,632 opioid-related deaths over the period spanning January 2016 to June 2022 in Canada.

In addition, in Montreal, there has been a 50% increase in opioid-related deaths from 2019 to 2021, while the COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to the resulting increasingly toxic and unpredictable drug supply, isolation, and limited access to health and social services.

The editorial also discussed the devastating effect of the opioid crisis on the Indigenous communities, with research published in 2018 showing that First Nations people were five times more likely to experience an opioid-related overdose and three times more likely to die from one. While Indigenous individuals comprise 2.6% of the total population in 2018, they also accounted for 10% of opioid-related overdose deaths.

Moreover, there was a rapid increase in opioid overdoses in Montreal from June to October 2020, as well as an increase in the number of interventions involving naloxone compared to the summer of 2019.

In his interview with CBC News, Jean-François Mary, executive director of the harm reduction organization CACTUS Montréal, said Quebec is not taking the opioid crisis seriously, in contrast to B.C., where possession of up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamines, and MDMA has been decriminalized.

Furthermore, Montreal’s public health director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, has also stated in her interview with CBC News that decriminalization is also needed in Montreal. “We believe that [decriminalization] could allow consumers to use drugs in much safer contexts and avoid all the prejudice associated with judicialization,” she said. Dr. Drouin also noted that Quebec premier’s François Legault’s opposition to decriminalization opposes public interest.

“The provincial and federal governments must adequately respond to the opioid crisis by decriminalizing drugs and ensuring safe supplies. Support Indigenous-led organizations like the Black and Indigenous Harm Reduction Alliance, Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, and the First Nations Health Authority promoting Indigenous-centred approaches to harm reduction,” concludes the editorial. Moreover, Zhang highlighted public resources available in Montreal through organizations such as ConsumAction, a McGill student-led organization that promotes safe drug use education and awareness, and CACTUS Montréal, a community-based harm reduction organization, offering programs such as Checkpoint that provide free and confidential drug testing.