On February 21, I marched in solidarity with hundreds of people across Canada to raise awareness around the devastating number of lives needlessly lost to opioid-related overdoses.
In Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, drug-user advocacy organizations and their allies carried signs with the phrase “Life Won’t Wait” to protest the failed war on drugs and to demand more effective laws and policies from federal, provincial, and municipal levels of government.
The week before, many of us came together in Vancouver for a national conference on supervised-consumption services and overdose response—one of countless gatherings that take place every year where people who use drugs and their allies share expertise and strategize reform.
Although these types of convergences are inspiring, they are also incredibly frustrating. They remind us that our combined knowledge, experience, and proposed solutions, however rational and substantiated, will continue to be met with resistance from policymakers and government. Despite living in a country ostensibly committed to evidence-based governance, there is persistent ignorance of the overwhelming fact that prohibition and law enforcement—the tools Canada uses to address drug use most consistently—have failed us.
When Canada’s minister of health, Jane Philpott, was recently pressed by her provincial counterpart and other medical experts to declare a national health emergency, she declined, adding: “We’re literally using every tool available to respond to the crisis.”
If Canada were using all its tools, B.C. would not have lost 914 people (recently amended by the B.C. Coroners Service to 922) to opioid-related overdoses in 2016. Our provincial government and health authority would not be forced to implement “overdose-prevention sites” as a result of federal delays and in the absence of legal protection for participants and staff. Communities and advocacy organizations would not have to operate pop-up supervised-injection sites and alley patrols with minimal funding or resources. Groups across Canada would not be struggling to complete onerous and time-consuming applications for life-saving supervised-injection services—and those that did submit applications would not still be waiting, months later, for the federal exemptions they need to get those sites up and running. People with addictions would not face barriers to accessing the full range of proven prescription opioid treatments. We would not force people with addictions to rely on an illicit-drug market that, at this time, is flooded with highly potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil.
In short, we would not be marching.
If we are to meaningfully address drug use, we must challenge our perception that prohibition represents order and reason—and, conversely, that decriminalization and regulation are chaotic or anarchistic in nature.
Rigorous international research shows us that under prohibition, drug production, consumption, availability, and health-related problems have consistently risen. Prohibition has also allowed one of the world’s largest (and most violent) illegal economies to thrive by turning a blind eye to the reality that demand for drugs has always existed, and always will. This, in turn, leaves us with no option but to relinquish control and legal regulation over an increasingly dangerous and toxic supply.
By contrast, decriminalization and regulation have been shown in the context of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other drugs to minimize problematic drug use (including among youth), drug-related street crime and violence, and drug-related health harms. While reservations about those frameworks are intuitive for many of us who have learned about addiction in the context of a war on drugs, it is time to admit that in the face of evidence, prohibition has revealed itself to be the more radical and dangerous paradigm.
The goals of prohibitionists are not materially different from those of decriminalization advocates. We are all committed to minimizing problematic drug use, drug-related health harms, criminal activity, disorder, and violence associated with drugs. We all acknowledge that drugs can be dangerous and that we need to limit use among vulnerable populations, including youth. The difference is in the tools we identify as being most amenable to achieving those ends.
In coming to some kind of resolution, I urge you to question why we continue to rely on a model that has failed to eliminate supply, demand, or any of the harms the war on drugs was intended to prevent. At a time when two to three people in B.C. are dying of overdoses each day, it is morally indefensible not to.