Share This Article
Table of Contents Show
- Is it now possible to buy drugs freely in stores in Canada?
- The Reason Behind Decriminalizing Drugs Only in a Single Region and Not Nationwide
- Combatting the Overdose Crisis through Legalization: An Illogical Approach?
- Are pharmacies a common source of drugs for Canadians?
- The Potential Impact of Decriminalization on Overdose Rates
- Will Overdose Rates Decrease with Complete Prohibition of Drugs?
- Does methadone pose the same health risks as other opioids?
- Is a Lifetime of Methadone Treatment Required?
- Counter Arguments to the Decriminalization of Drugs
- Has drug decriminalization produced positive outcomes? Examining the case of Portugal
- Comparing the Failure of Drug Decriminalization in Oregon and the Success in Portugal
- Are these reforms expensive?
The Canadian government declared on January 31st that possession of small quantities of specific hard drugs for personal use would be decriminalized in the province of British Columbia located in southwestern Canada. Until January 31, 2026, police in British Columbia will not enforce penalties against individuals found with less than 2.5 grams of substances such as opioids (heroin, morphine, and fentanyl), cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA.
The local authorities believe that this move will assist individuals with drug addiction in obtaining support and begin treatment. According to British Columbia’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Jennifer Whiteside, “Decriminalization eliminates the fear and stigma surrounding the use of psychoactive substances and empowers people to seek the help they require for their well-being.
Is it now possible to buy drugs freely in stores in Canada?
It’s important to note that decriminalization is not the same as legalization. The sale of drugs in Canada remains illegal, regardless of quantity.
Only individuals who are of legal age are permitted to possess up to 2.5 grams of restricted substances. There are exceptions to this rule as well: possessing any amount of hard drugs on airport grounds or near children’s institutions (such as schools and daycare centers) is still prohibited. Additionally, drug use is not allowed on private property, including shopping malls, bars, and cafes, and the police have the authority to remove individuals from these premises if they engage in open drug use against the owner’s will. The new rules do not apply to Canadian military personnel.
It’s worth noting that these changes only apply in British Columbia. Transporting restricted substances to other parts of Canada remains illegal, as does driving under the influence within the province.
The Reason Behind Decriminalizing Drugs Only in a Single Region and Not Nationwide
The decision to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs in British Columbia is a result of the pressing issue of drug use in the province. The situation has been dubbed a “crisis of overdoses” by experts.
Local coroners’ data reveals that approximately 73,000 residents in the province suffer from opioid-related disorders, equivalent to 1.7% of the population. Since the declaration of a public health emergency in April 2016, at least 11,171 residents in British Columbia have lost their lives to overdoses. Canada’s Ministry of Health reports that the opioid crisis in the 38 million population of the country has claimed over 32,000 lives from “apparent” opioid poisoning since its onset.
Unfortunately, the public health emergency status has not been effective in reducing fatalities and the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation. In 2022, 2,272 residents in British Columbia died from overdoses (nearly two and a half times more than in 2016), making it the leading cause of death among non-natural causes.
Combatting the Overdose Crisis through Legalization: An Illogical Approach?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drug-related disorders should be viewed primarily as a health issue rather than a criminal act. The WHO supports a system that prioritizes treatment over criminal prosecution and imprisonment as a means of combating stigma and encouraging individuals who use drugs to seek help. In 2022, a study of 27 qualitative interviews with residents of rural British Columbia who use opioids or stimulants revealed that the majority of participants faced difficulty accessing healthcare due to stigma and discrimination in their close-knit communities. Moreover, police monitoring in these areas was often excessive.
According to some participants in the study, they felt ashamed to obtain substitute therapy from the pharmacy due to the presence of a separate booth for drug users. One participant described the experience as follows:
“People who come for a prescription are on one side, and those who come for drugs are on the other. It feels like we should all be in the same place. I receive a prescription, just like someone else does, but they pick up theirs over there and I have to pick up mine here. It’s like being in prison.”
Are pharmacies a common source of drugs for Canadians?
The idea of replacement therapy is not unusual. It involves giving methadone, an opioid with effects similar to morphine, to individuals who are dependent on opioids. Methadone, unlike prohibited drugs, does not cause a high in the user when taken in the proper dose. This type of therapy has been used in 77 countries for over a decade, according to the United Nations.
The goal of this therapy is to “reduce harm” rather than to completely eliminate drug use or achieve victory over addiction. The person being treated does not experience withdrawal symptoms and can lead a normal life, work, and even drive.
According to the United Nations, this therapy leads to a decrease in crime rates among addicts, lower levels of drug trafficking, and improved job prospects and salaries for those who undergo treatment. Additionally, it helps combat the spread of HIV, as the substitute drug is taken orally instead of intravenously.
The WHO considers substitute therapy to be the “best of the existing” methods for treating addiction, but acknowledges the potential risks. Overdoses, abuses, and fatal outcomes can occur if the therapy is not used correctly, hence the need for increased oversight over these programs.
The Potential Impact of Decriminalization on Overdose Rates
The illegal drug trade often involves different types of banned substances that are handled using the same equipment and surfaces, increasing the likelihood of contamination. This is particularly evident with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which can cause poisoning even in trace amounts found in cocaine or other psychostimulants. For instance, in British Columbia, fatal overdoses occur mostly among people without a severe drug addiction, and 82% of these cases are linked to fentanyl.
The risk of overdose can be reduced by having naloxone on hand, which is an opioid antagonist and antidote. In British Columbia, bars and other establishments that pose a risk of opioid overdose are required to keep naloxone on site. Decreasing the stigma surrounding drug use can also raise awareness of the illness, making it more likely that help will be provided in the event of an overdose.
Another argument in favor of decriminalization is that scientists have found that the threat of jail time can increase the risk of death from an overdose soon after contact with the police. The data on this issue is limited, and other cause-and-effect relationships may not have been considered. Some experts believe that decriminalization would allow the police to concentrate on organized crime and drug dealers instead of individual users.
Will Overdose Rates Decrease with Complete Prohibition of Drugs?
It doesn’t seem to be the case, as evidenced by the experience of Sweden, whose drug policy is one of the harshest in the European Union.
Swedish laws do not differentiate between hard and soft drugs and consider the storage and use of substances as a crime.
As a result, the percentage of the Swedish population that has tried banned substances is relatively low. In France, for instance, 45% of surveyed residents had tried drugs in 2017 (the highest in Europe), while in Sweden, in 2016, only 15.6% had tried them. Despite this, the level of mortality remains high. In 2016, there were 590 overdose incidents with fatal outcomes in Sweden, which is nearly 20 times higher than in Portugal, a country with a similar population where the storage and use of drugs is not considered a crime. In Portugal, only 11.7% of surveyed residents had tried drugs in 2016.
A survey of heroin consumers in Malmö (Sweden’s third largest city) showed that many of them do not call for emergency help for friends experiencing an overdose due to fear of being detained by the police.
Does methadone pose the same health risks as other opioids?
While treatment with methadone does come with some health risks, they are significantly less compared to the dangers posed by the use of untested illegal drugs.
Unlike heroin, methadone does not harm any of the body’s major organs or systems. The main concern during treatment is the risk of overdose, which is higher if the patient is also consuming drugs that suppress the central nervous system, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other opioids. The physician must inform the patient of these dangers.
There are only a few side effects associated with methadone treatment, including sleep disturbances, nausea, constipation, dry mouth, and sexual dysfunction. However, not all patients experience these effects.
Is a Lifetime of Methadone Treatment Required?
A person can choose to discontinue methadone therapy and attempt to overcome addiction without its use.
The duration of treatment is not set in stone, but longer treatment generally leads to better outcomes. If therapy is discontinued, the amount of methadone taken is gradually reduced.
Counter Arguments to the Decriminalization of Drugs
The idea of decriminalizing small amounts of drugs has been met with both support and criticism. Some people believe that there are problems with the implementation of this idea, rather than the concept itself. For example, Lesley McBain, the founder of Moms Stop the Harm, thinks that allowing people to possess only 2.5 grams of drugs is not enough and will increase the likelihood of getting low-quality drugs from dealers.
The Canadian National Post has also listed several reasons why decriminalization may not be effective. Firstly, local police have already been reluctant to arrest people for possessing small amounts of drugs for personal use. The Vancouver police department even claims that it has been practicing “de facto decriminalization” for over 10 years, but this has not improved the situation in the city.
Secondly, a similar experiment has been underway in the state of Oregon since 2020, which shares a border with British Columbia and has a similar population size. People caught with small amounts of heavy drugs face a maximum fine of 100 dollars. However, this reform has been considered a failure by some experts as the number of drug abuse cases and overdose deaths have increased. The fine can be waived if the person seeks help from a medical hot line, but only 1% of consumers do so.
It is too soon to determine the failure of the Oregon experiment as it has only been in effect for three years and its implementation has been partially hindered by the pandemic.
Has drug decriminalization produced positive outcomes? Examining the case of Portugal
Portugal serves as a shining example that many countries look to, as it was the first country to decriminalize the holding and usage of all prohibited substances in 2001.
In place of making arrests for drug possession, those caught may receive a warning, incur a small penalty, or be required to participate in a commission made up of a physician, attorney, and social worker. The following are the results of this approach:
- In the first five years after the reforms, drug-related mortality decreased sharply. In 2019, its level remains one of the lowest in the EU: six deaths per million among people aged 15-64 compared to the EU average of 23.7 per million.
- The number of people convicted for drug offenses has fallen from 40% in 2001 to 15.7% in 2019 (drug trafficking in the country remains banned).
- In 2001 and 2002, Portugal had more than 50% of all new HIV cases related to injection drug use in the EU (even though it had only 2% of the population of the community).
- In 2019, the country recorded only 16 new diagnoses – 1.68% of the total in the EU. In 2019, Portugal had one of the lowest levels of drug use in Europe among people aged 15 to 34.
Comparing the Failure of Drug Decriminalization in Oregon and the Success in Portugal
Brief response: The reason is that Portugal not only altered its laws but also implemented extensive reforms that impacted society as a whole.
Dr. João Castel-Branco Gouveia, one of the creators of the decriminalization plan, explained these changes in an interview with “Meduza” as follows:
Simply decriminalizing drug use would not have been enough. A healthcare system must be in place to address drug-related issues, providing unrestricted access to treatment without delay, force, or cost to those who require it. This system was established prior to the decriminalization process.
It is essential to reach out to the most vulnerable drug users by going to their usual locations, speaking with them, educating them, and promoting safer drug use. Building trust with medical staff is crucial in encouraging these individuals to seek treatment. While treatment is not mandatory, persuasive efforts are made to encourage drug users to stop using and seek help.
The decriminalization of drugs helps rebuild the trust that drug users have in state services. If the surroundings remain criminalized, individuals tend to steer clear of interacting with government officials out of fear of being turned over to the authorities and facing charges. In Portugal, this fear does not exist as people are aware that medical professionals will not report them to the police and there will be no negative repercussions. This leads to greater chances of expanding access to treatment, which should be provided in a decriminalized setting with medical support and care instead of repression and punishment.
As a result of the reforms in Portugal, not only did government agencies change, but also public perception of drug users. Previously referred to as “drogados” (stoners), they are now referred to more accurately and compassionately as “people who use drugs” or “people with drug addiction.”
Are these reforms expensive?
Financial resources and political will are needed to start reforms (the latter even to a greater extent), but after some time, costs can pay off.
In the United States, every dollar spent on needle exchange programs later saves the budget about seven dollars. A 2015 study showed that the social costs of drug use in Portugal decreased by 12% from 2000 to 2004 and by 18% by 2010. Scientists explain this by the fact that the police spend less money on criminal prosecution of people for crimes related to banned substances, and drug users themselves less often lose income due to arrest.