Sarah Leamon: Decriminalize, destigmatize, and develop ways to make it easier for addicts to seek help

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      A Liberal MP from Ontario has introduced a new bill, which is squarely aimed at quelling the opioid crisis in this country. 

      Nate Erskine-Smith, who represents the Beaches-East York riding of Toronto, tabled Bill C-460 in the House of Commons on June 17, seeking to decriminalize minor drug possession offences. 

      While introducing the bill, Erskine-Smith described the opioid crisis as it is: a public health emergency. He cited statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which reports that more than 11,000 Canadians have died from opioid overdoses since January 2016. 

      The same source reports that approximately 11 people die every day from apparent opioid-related incidents. 

      Statistics Canada reports that Canadian life expectancy at birth has stopped rising for the first time in over four decades as a direct result of the opioid crisis. 

      Erskine-Smith is right.  There is no debating it—our nation is in the midst of a crisis.

      And while blaming drugs and addiction may be temping, the root of this crisis really lies in stigma. 

      The stigmatization of drug use is what holds many opioid users back from seeking help.  It also often causes them to isolate themselves, using alone and without any safeguards in place should something go wrong.  Simply put, stigma kills.

      Stigma goes hand-in-hand with the fear of criminal prosecution and the potential threat of a criminal record for most people. 

      After all, a criminal conviction is one of the most stigmatizing things that can happen to a person in our society today. 

      A criminal record marginalizes a person and creates a multitude of barriers for them. 

      Those with criminal records may have difficulty securing employment and housing, their mobility may be affected, and they may be unable to access critical support services as required. 

      Those with criminal records are stigmatized. 

      Those with a criminal record, and an opioid addiction, are doubly stigmatized.

      Even the government of Canada recognizes that reality of stigma and the detrimental affect it has on the lives of those afflicted with opioid addiction. Its website states that people who use opioids are stigmatized and often feel ashamed, alone, and judged.  

      The website calls on Canadians to end the stigma around opioid use through an “end stigma campaign”. 

      Watch the video for the "end stigma campaign".

      This campaign encourages Canadians to stop stigma by being respectful, compassionate, and caring to drug users, while not judging them and keeping an open mind.   

      It asks the public to educate themselves about substance-use disorders and to change the way that we talk about drugs. 

      While these are fantastic suggestions, they are far too optimistic about the state of our society. They ultimately do little to nothing to create the tangible, structural changes that are necessary to achieve the goals of destigmatization and ending the opioid crisis. 

      Real change is needed. And it is needed now. 

      Every day, opioid users are dying. Since 2016, thousands of people have died in this province alone and they continue to die each and every day that inaction on this issue continues to occur. 

      Decriminalizing low-level drug-possession offences is an essential step forward.

      After all, the fear of being arrested, charged, and prosecuted for a criminal offence in relation to possessing illicit drugs for personal use is a real and legitimate fear that often holds people back from calling emergency authorities in moments of peril. 

      It creates a distrust of police. It dissuades people from seeking treatment.

      It causes harm.

      Measures like decriminalization reduce harm. 

      While some people may not be comfortable with it, this model of harm reduction undeniably functions from the realistic perspective that criminalizing an act will not prevent it from occurring.

      This is particularly so when highly addictive chemical compounds are involved. 

      Laws against simple drug possession only serve to further marginalize, isolate, and stigmatize some of societies’ most vulnerable people. Putting drug users in jail does not cure addiction. It does not address the underlying trauma that leads to drug addictive behaviours. 

      It does nothing except put more opioid users in the ground. 

      Bill C-460 looks to kick-start the process of destigmatization by keeping drug users out of jail, assuring them the security against prosecution that they require in order to get help, and changing the fundamental way that our society talks about and views drug addiction.  

      Addicts will no longer be seen as criminals.  

      This is an essential step forward in ending stigmatization and one upon which a structure of societal change can be properly built. 

      If our government is serious about ending stigma around opioid use, and stopping the opioid crisis dead in its tracks, then it will have no other choice but to back this bill.