Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }
Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you manage your health, your finances and your family life as Canada reopens.
Visit the hub

A man stops to read messages attached to shoes hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Aug. 31, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Mark Tyndall is a public health physician, an advocate for people who use drugs and a Professor at the UBC School of Population and Public Health.

After five years of an increasing number of drug poisonings, 2020 is on pace to be the worst year in history for such deaths in Canada. And while COVID-19 is often blamed for the recent surge, the drivers of the overdose epidemic were in place well before the pandemic.

Entrenched stigma and general indifference to the plight of people who use drugs are at the root of our inaction. But the overdose crisis has also become entangled with poverty, homelessness, racism, sexual violence and hyper-incarceration. Drug use and addiction are tied up with these social issues, but are not responsible for them. In fact, my work with people who use drugs has taught me that people often use drugs just to survive these injustices.

Story continues below advertisement

Our approach to drug use and addiction is completely backward. We continue to prioritize abstinence-based programming and leave the most vulnerable people to figure it out for themselves. We champion something called “recovery,” and make it sound attainable to anyone who has the fortitude and support to overcome their addiction – but tell that to the friends and families of the 16,000 Canadians who have died of drug poisoning in the past five years.

At this stage, we are left with only one ethical response to this crisis: offering drug-dependent people access to a safer regulated supply.

The concept of a safer drug supply is not complicated. Instead of leaving people to purchase drugs that emanate from profit-driven criminal drug cartels and that travel through an underground network of low-level suppliers, the government would offer drugs of known quality and potency in a regulated program. There are many ways to provide a safe drug supply, but scalable solutions must go beyond physician prescribing and pharmacy dispensing. This is a public health crisis, and requires a public health response. In the immediate term, the goal is to reduce drug poisonings, not to solve addiction.

There would be two direct outcomes from a safe supply program. First, there would be a dramatic decrease in drug overdoses; substituting drugs with known potency to replace the unpredictable and toxic drug supply would effectively eliminate unintentional drug overdoses.

It would also relieve people of the daily grind required to procure money to purchase drugs at extortionate prices, leading to less anxiety and more stability. People would have time to reconnect with family, seek medical care, find housing, and ultimately reduce their dependence on drugs. At a community level, this would result in a significant reduction in criminal activity and social chaos, since a good deal of petty crime, shoplifting, survival sex work, and car break-ins are related to people’s daily efforts to obtain illicit drugs.

A major barrier to the broad scale-up of a safe drug supply program is drug prohibition and the criminalization of drug use. Despite calls from public health leaders and law enforcement organizations for the decriminalization of illicit drugs, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently said that this was not a “silver bullet,” and that his government was unlikely to support decriminalization. But while decriminalization may not solve the problem on its own, the criminalization of drugs and drug users hangs like a dark threatening cloud over all of our best efforts. In that way, decriminalization is a “silver bullet”: Everything else depends on it.

For those who are unmoved by the human tragedy of the overdose crisis, or feel that correcting our failed drug policies are too risky, consider the economic cost of doing nothing. Using data from 2015 to 2017, the Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms Report estimated that the opioid epidemic cost Canadians $6-billion per year, or about $177,000 per opioid user when you add up the cost of the criminal justice system, health care, and lost productivity.

Story continues below advertisement

So we must move beyond empty platitudes, hollow promises, and underfunded pilot projects. More of the same complacency ensures that thousands more will die because of drug prohibition and the ongoing exposure to toxic drugs. Our failure to take bold steps ensures that the drug poisoning crisis will continue for years to come.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies