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Trudeau doubles down on refusal to decriminalize all drugs

Trudeau doubles down on refusal to decriminalize all drugs

After spending Friday morning in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside bearing witness to the opioid overdose crisis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has again rejected calls for a wholesale decriminalization of illegal drugs.

Instead, he continued to tout his well-known plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

“This is a crisis that seems for most Canadians to be very far away, something that’s limited to tougher parts of town to the west coast. But we are seeing a spread of opioids across the country,” Trudeau told reporters after he accompanied Vancouver police into the pockets of the city where drug users gather, and met with health workers on the front lines of treatment and harm reduction initiatives.  

“We are seeing a spread of opioids across the country.”

When asked whether he would consider decriminalizing other drugs, Trudeau rehashed his statements on his plan to legalize pot, saying that controlling its sale would “take it out of the hands of criminal organizations and street gangs” and protect children. Experts have pointed out that legalizing other drugs could bring about the same results, while reducing overdose deaths.

Trudeau also pointed to his government’s efforts to mitigate the opioid crisis by making it easier for cities to open safe injection sites, and allocating more funds for addictions treatment.

But beyond those measures, healthcare leaders and drug policy experts have for years called on the federal government to consider decriminalizing all drugs, or legalizing them, a move they say would significantly curb the worsening opioid overdose crisis. B.C.’s health officer Dr. Perry Kendall has championed decriminalization because treating addiction as a crime, and not a healthcare issue, is only making the crisis worse. Numerous tests have shown that the illicit drug supply in Vancouver — and beyond — has become contaminated with potent opioids that can be fatal in minuscule doses.

Since last year, B.C. has been under a public health emergency over rampant fentanyl use, particular in downtown Vancouver. There was record-breaking 922 overdose deaths counted in 2016, many of which have been linked to fentanyl and its even deadlier cousin carfentanil. So far this year, the province has seen 116 overdose deaths from illegal drugs.

“We need to come together as a country to help our most vulnerable, to recognize the challenges faced day in and day out by drug users,” continued Trudeau. “This is something we cannot continue to ignore, to stigmatize.”

“This is something we cannot continue to ignore, to stigmatize.”

Many drug policy experts in Canada and around the world have studied how the criminalization of drug use is a main reason why it continues to be stigmatized and not treated with the same severity as other health concerns and diseases.

B.C.’s health minister Terry Lake has regularly called the war on drugs a “failure.”

And last month, Liberal Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith broke party ranks in an op-ed for VICE News in which he implored policymakers to decriminalize all drug use.

“If we follow a public health and harm reduction approach to its logical conclusion, we could save even more lives by regulating all drugs according to their respective harms,” wrote Erskine-Smith. “Pharmaceutical quality control, for example, could ensure Canadians do not unsuspectingly use drugs laced with deadly fentanyl.”

“Pharmaceutical quality control, for example, could ensure Canadians do not unsuspectingly use drugs laced with deadly fentanyl.”

Kendall has pointed to countries such as Portugal as proof that decriminalizing drugs is an effective way to manage addictions that also reduces crime and poverty rates. Since 2000, Portuguese law enforcement have stopped arresting people for possessing anything less than a 10 day supply of any illicit drug. Instead, the offender is ordered to appear before a panel of health and legal specialists to discuss their drug use. Repeat offenders may be sent for addictions treatment. Since then, the HIV infection rate in the country has been slashed and overdose deaths have decreased by 90 percent.

 

Cover: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

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