Vancouver city council passed a motion by Mayor Kennedy Stewart seeking to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs on Nov. 25, making the city the first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize simple possession.
Stewart is the latest in a string of politicians and health officials who have said decriminalization is one approach that could be used to alleviate the opioid crisis. According to the motion, 1,536 people have died of overdoses in Vancouver since April 2016, with 328 occurring in 2020 to date.
But some experts doubt decriminalization will change much and could be even counterproductive.
Anthony Daniels, a retired doctor who spent 15 years as a physician in a British prison and saw thousands of people with drug issues both inside and outside of jail, is not so sure decriminalization is a wise solution.
He suggests opiate addictions prove that relaxing the legal status of drugs doesn’t address addiction issues.
“The harms of drugs do not arise from their criminalization,” Daniels said in an interview.
“After all, the drugs that people are overdosing on … they obtained them legally, they are produced legally, they are distributed legally, they are prescribed legally. Now it has escaped the legal route as it were, but it does prove that the problems of drug-taking are not caused by their illegality.”
On Nov. 24, the company behind OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, pleaded guilty to three criminal charges in a U.S. court, formally admitting to its role in the opioid epidemic responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths over the past two decades.
Stewart’s motion decriminalizes personal possession of all psychoactive substances with the aim of reducing the stigma associated with substance use and facilitating access to treatment services for people at risk.
The move needs Ottawa’s approval, and the motion directs the city to request a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Stewart said in a recent CBC interview that he’s had conversations with federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and he’s “hopeful that she’ll be able to convince her colleagues that this is the right thing to do.”
He noted that police already ignore possession of small amounts of drugs, but decriminalization “would reduce stigma. The reason people are overdosing is because they inject on their own, use drugs on their own, overdose, and then there’s nobody there to call for help or revive them.”
Daniels maintains, however, that stigmatization “is a good thing,” because with destigmatization comes the understanding that “someone can do something wrong and yet be helped.”
“First of all, you turn these people into victims and then you say I’m going to help them. You can’t help them unless they’re victims, which involves a lot of dishonesty because they’re not victims. They do what they do because in fact that’s what they want to do,” he said.
Some have suggested that decriminalizing opioids would undercut the black-market supply, where drugs are often tainted.
David Gillies, who spent a decade involved with gangs and drugs in Ontario’s Kitchener area, argues that decriminalization “benefits the black market greatly.”
He also says the legalization of cannabis left underground sales intact.
“Even now with the prices coming down on the government side, there is still enough margins for profitable black-market cannabis. Everyone I know still buys from their dealers. The quality of black-market product is still better than the store-bought product and at a cheaper price point,” he says.
Gillies thinks getting rid of the stigma around drug use, however, is a good approach.
“I agree that the stigma related to drug use should be lifted. People need to feel free to access treatment for addiction,” he said.
In July, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released a report endorsing decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drugs. Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize simple drug possession in November.
A February Ipsos poll for Global News found that a majority of Canadians (53 percent) are opposed to the decriminalization of the possession of a small amount of illicit drugs.
In an interview with The Canadian Press last December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he “was absolutely opposed to decriminalization of marijuana for many years and opposed to legalization. I am now opposed to decriminalization of hard drugs.”
“It is not something that I would be convinced is—or even could be—the panacea [to the opioid crisis],” he said.
Stewart hopes Hajdu will try to change Trudeau’s mind. Meanwhile, he plans to work for decriminalization on other fronts. “There’s multiple other fronts that I will continue to push on,” he said.
Activists who support drug decriminalization often point to Portugal, which in 2001 decriminalized simple possession of drugs for “individual consumption,” as a successful example. However, officials in that country have said that although drug addiction is more under control today, it’s impossible to show how much of that owes to decriminalization, as there are many variables.
In October 2019, the mayor of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city after Lisbon, spoke publicly about reintroducing criminal penalties for drug use in public spaces. According to Say Nope to Dope’s website, the mayor said he was “a little tired of hearing just about the dignity” of those who use drugs, adding that the policy of decriminalization “simply does not protect the overwhelming majority of the population.”
“The situation in Portugal has not been a disaster, but it has not been a triumphant success either. In fact, things have been much the same,” Daniels says.
“It hasn’t been a terrible disaster but drugs was never much of a problem in Portugal anyway. I mean, I don’t think they really had the kind of problem that one reads about in San Francisco or in Vancouver.”
With a file from The Associated Press