Recently, the Canadian government has changed guidelines within the controlled drugs and substances act that brings the country closer than ever to decriminalization. It would be a monumental step in combating the opioid crisis that grips Canada.
It is crucial to understand that decriminalization is not the same as legalization. When something becomes legalized, it means that a once-banned substance is no longer illegal, but may still have restrictions such as age and possession amount, as seen with cannabis. Decriminalization, on the other hand, is when a substance is still deemed illegal but punishments for possession may be reduced to a fine or sentencing the offender to a drug rehabilitation program.
Canada is facing an overwhelming opioid crisis. Between January 2016 and March 2020 there have been 16,364 opioid-related deaths, and 20,523 opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations (excluding Quebec), according to Statistics Canada.
According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, pharmaceutical fentanyl was first developed for pain management of cancer patients, applied by a patch on the skin. However, because of the powerful opiate properties, fentanyl became abused.
Users who overdose on morphine or heroin typically have a drug concentration level of about two milligrams per litre of blood in the body, whereas only 0.01 milligrams per litre is typical in fentanyl overdoses.
Fentanyl is a cheap drug to produce compared to other opiates, and more powerful, just a few grains of fentanyl is enough to cause an overdose. This is why substances such as heroin and other synthetic drugs are being cut with fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is added to heroin to increase its potency or be disguised as highly potent heroin, which often results in overdose deaths,” the DEA states.
The key to defeating the fentanyl link to the opioid crisis is decriminalization because as it stands, users live with the constant fear of being criminally charged or more specifically, going to jail. They feel unsafe going to treatment centres and getting their substances tested for fentanyl.
If decriminalization were in place this fear would diminish. People would have the ability to go to treatment centres to get their substances tested and understand the purity of the drug which they are taking, without the fear of being prosecuted.
When someone is sent to prison because of a substance use-related crime, it does not treat the issue, if anything it encourages a person’s addiction.
“Drugs are available in prison. Studies examining rates of substance use indicate that the per capita use of drugs in Canada’s prisons is substantially higher than on the street. In addition, drug trade is also much more violent in prison than it is on the street,” according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.
Once individuals are released from prison they are much more likely to still have a substance issue than not because drugs are easily obtained in the Canadian prison system.
By erasing a criminal charge and instead putting low-level offenders into social services such as rehabilitation and treatment centres, it will be much less likely for an offender to maintain a substance abuse issue upon release.
Canada has taken the first few steps towards decriminalization and stopping the opioid crisis, but if we as a nation want to see serious improvements it’s time we go all the way.
Erase criminal punishment for simple possession and instead recognize substance abuse as a form of illness that needs to be treated with proper facilities. If not, the problem will grow to affect all social demographics, locations, and persons in Canada.