With more than 1,500 people dying of drug overuse in British Columbia last year and an average of 74 overdose cases each day, the urgency to deal with the situation is increasing, and so are the number of organizations, and health and administration officials, insisting on the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.
The proponents of decriminalization argue that arresting on the charges of simple drug possession and the confiscation of drugs fails to address the main issue: drug addiction. The people dealing with this issue require treatment rather than a criminal record since being sent to jail does not help them deal with their addictions and once released, they would inevitably try to find more drugs, and continue down the same road as before.
Having a criminal record would not only affect their ability to secure employment and housing but also makes them more fearful of public opinion and seeking help and treatment. Decriminalizing simple drug possession and providing treatment services by addressing it as a health issue would lessen the burden on these people and make them more proactive towards dealing with their addiction issues.
Many sectors have already started implementing policies to promote decriminalization. In the law sector, a directive was issued by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada last August that asked federal lawyers to avoid the prosecution of cases involving simple drug possession except for “the most serious” cases.
Similarly in the public safety sector, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police recently issued a report calling for the decriminalization of simple drug possession, stating it to be ineffective and emphasizing the inconsistency present in the dealing of such cases.
The most significant contribution, however, is of the Abbotsford, B.C., Police Department that not only laid just 18 charges of simple drug possession last year but also has a street outreach response team, which has members working alongside a crew from Project Angel, a peer support program that helps connect substance users and the homeless with support services.
B.C. Premier John Horgan has also called on the federal government to make amends in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and Vancouver’s city council and Montreal’s city council have also voted in favour of the decriminalization of simple drug possession in Ottawa. The B.C. government has also sent out notices to police departments regarding the disengagement in arrests concerning simple possession and emphasizing a harm-reduction approach instead.
Oregon, which has the highest rates of substance abuse in the U.S. whilst having the lowest per-capita spending on treatment, enacted decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs starting February 1st. Some believe that they should wait and see what happens in not only Oregon, which has enacted new policies regarding drug use and its treatment, but also observe other countries with decriminalization laws.
Looking at Portugal, where drug possession was decriminalized in 2000, there was no surge in drug use. The fallout was a decrease in the deaths due to drug overdose and an increase of 20% in the number of people being treated for drug addiction, from 2001 to 2008, at which point the numbers stabilized.