Understanding decriminalization and the steps to ending the opioid crisis

Aug 3, 2021

Opinion: Decriminalization is a critical step in curbing the opioid crisis

A recent opinion article published in The Conversation examines the benefits of drug decriminalization, as well as its potential impact in fighting the ongoing opioid crisis. The article, co-authored by Alissa Greer, Assistant Professor in the School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University and Caitlin Shane, staff lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, also critically examines drug decriminalization compared to regulation, as well as its effects on drug-related harms.

According to a survey conducted in 2020, 59% of respondents favour the decriminalization of drugs. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has also recently publicly supported decriminalization, in addition to British Columbia’s chief public health officer.

Earlier in 2021, the City of Vancouver submitted an application to Health Canada for an exemption from Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act — a policy reform referred to as the Vancouver Model of decriminalization.

What is drug decriminalization?

Drug decriminalization refers to the implementation of an alternative response to criminal penalties for simple possession. It has been shown that criminalization of drugs has resulted in significant health, social and economic harms to vulnerable populations, including individuals who are homeless, have mental health issues, and Indigenous individuals.

In addition, drug decriminalization aims to “minimize the contact between people who use drugs and the criminal justice system and may increase their connection to health and social systems,” according to the authors of the opinion article.

Decriminalization vs. regulation

Legal regulation of drugs involves rules to control access to drugs, in contrast to a free market or full legalization.

Since decriminalization does not promote a “safer supply” of drugs, it will not affect the illegal supply of drugs containing toxic adulterants. Finally, the illegal drug market will continue to be criminalized following the implementation of decriminalization. According to the authors of the opinion article, the overdose risk will, nevertheless, remain high.

Advantages of drug decriminalization

One of the main benefits of drug decriminalization is that it will help to address drug use as a health and social issue in contrast to a criminal one; this would reduce the workload for the legal system, as well as the costs involved. Drug decriminalization also creates a positive impact in people’s lives, promoting their opportunities to access employment and housing. Furthermore, it reduces the stigma associated with drug use, and can serve as an effective harm reduction measure. Finally, implementation of drug decriminalization can encourage people to contact emergency services following an overdose, since fear of police can act as a deterrent in some situations.

Ontario’s mayors have called for decriminalization

Ontario’s Big City Mayors (OBCM) have been calling for the decriminalization of illicit drugs, in addition to continued funding and development of mental health crisis response units.

“While the provincial government is responsible for funding and coordinating mental health and addictions supports, all levels of government have a role to play in improving services for our residents,” OBCM said.

“The war on drugs isn’t working,” said Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman. “We need to start understanding that this is a public health crisis for people who are addicted and to take a health approach to the people who are using drugs rather than policing.”

Decriminalization as a critical step, but not a solution to opioid crisis

According to the authors of the opinion article, decriminalization is not “a standalone solution to the harms of drug prohibition.” However, it can serve as a critical step in the right direction, since it will exert a positive impact on the lives of numerous people who are harmed daily from criminalization.

The authors maintain that it is important to be aware of the limitations of decriminalization models, so that governments and other stakeholders can refocus efforts on creating a safer drug supply. The authors also emphasize the fact that decriminalization must be coupled with greater access to safer pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic and illegal drug market.