Tuesday May 31 the Canadian government made one order it was the first of its kind for the country. From 31 January 2023, the province of British Columbia will conduct a trial – lasting three years – in which persons over the age of 18 will be able to possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA without arrest. seizure or indictment. Canada joins a handful of countries with existing decriminalization policies; others include Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United States (Oregon decriminalized possessing small amounts of hard drugs back in 2020).
A decriminalized substance resides in a constitutionally no-man’s land, neither legal nor illegal. The policy essentially implies that possession will not result in handcuffs and that an abuse disorder will not be treated as a crime. “This is long overdue,” said Daniel Werb, director of the Center for Drug Policy Evaluation at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “This is something that people have understood for a really long time – that you can not stop your way out of this problem.”
And that’s actually a problem. The war on drugs has been going on for half a century, and the writing is on the wall: It clearly does not work. “The record is clear that the global war on drugs has been a total catastrophic political failure,” said Ben Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Overdose: Heartbreak and hope in Canada’s opioid crisis. Criminalization of drug use is disproportionately directed at the marginalized, including blacks and indigenous communities, the outsiders, and people with mental illness. And the stigma of criminalization means that people are less likely to seek help and more likely to use drugs alone, which contributes to higher incidence of overdose.
But proponents of drug policy reform say decriminalization – or “decriminalization” – is merely the first in a long line of major overhauls needed to counter Canada’s catastrophic opioid epidemic. While it is a commendable political move, the decision is only a bandage on this gaping wound, which only worsened during the whole pandemic. British Columbia is epicenter of the crisis in Canada and has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in North America. The province’s opioid epidemic was declared a public health emergency in April 2016, and since then more than 9,400 people have died of overdoses.
Decrim advocates persistently argue that bringing law enforcement into the equation has done nothing to lower this figure. Plus, Canadian research shows that people who are incarcerated – whether for drug-related reasons or not – are at significant risk of overdose upon release; one study showed that in the two weeks after someone left prison, their risk of overdose was more than 50 times higher than in the general population. Another found it one in 10 overdose deaths is in people who left prison within the last year. “In other words, prisons are like a death sentence for many people with substance abuse,” Perrin says.
Criminalization exacerbates a vicious circle of poverty, stigma, discrimination, unemployment and recidivism, all of which make it harder to stabilize drug use, says Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of the International AIDS Society. (Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, once said“A criminal record for a young person for a minor drug offense can be a far greater threat to their well-being than occasional drug use.”)