Opinion: A new approach to end the opioid crisis

Feb 17, 2022

A recent opinion article published by the Ottawa Sun discussed a novel approach to end the ongoing opioid crisis in Canada.

The article’s authors, Natasha Touesnard, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs, Dr. Christy Sutherland, a family doctor and diplomat of the American Board of Addiction Medicine working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and Lindsey Richardson, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia and a research scientist at the BC Centre on Substance Use, suggest that having a legal, regulated system for illicit substances would divert costs from the criminal justice system.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and increasing toxicity of illicit drugs, record numbers of opioid-related deaths have been reported across several provinces in recent months. According to the article’s authors, Canada’s current drug prohibition laws are ‘directly responsible’ for creating a toxic drug supply adulterated with dangerous contaminants. In addition, the authors argue that the enforcement of these laws creates ‘predictable inequities for racialized and poor Canadians,’ leading to unnecessary arrests, incarcerations, and overdoses.

“Policy change should prioritize both decriminalization and legal regulation. Decriminalization measures must allow for the possession of sufficient quantities of currently illegal substances to protect all people who use drugs from the perils and inequities of criminalization. They must also effectively address the harm experienced by those already entangled in the criminal justice system,” the article reads.

However, the authors also argue that illicit drug decriminalization alone will not resolve the toxic and unregulated drug supply; they suggest that legalization and regulation of illicit drugs will create a safely regulated drug supply to all Canadians and reduce the number of opioid-related overdoses, with a focus on people who use drugs during the policymaking process.

“Drug use should be euphoric and safe, regulated with oversight on distribution, advertisement and labelling. A specific framework for each substance would protect youth, cut out organized crime, and provide ethical products that don’t rely on violent and destructive supply chains,” the authors suggest. “Individuals who consume substances wouldn’t be criminalized for the possession, acquisition, procurement, sale or distribution of substances. A legal, regulated system would divert costs from the criminal justice system — which could be redirected to community-led responses to drug-related harm.”

Finally, the authors suggest that the newly created Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and the new minister, Carolyn Bennett, must learn from the successes and challenges of cannabis legalization to change the current approach to illicit drugs to prevent opioid-related deaths.