A little light broke through the gloom of Canada’s deadly opioid crisis last week, when the Public Prosecution Service of Canada took a step toward decriminalizing the simple possession of illegal drugs.
Under a new PPSC directive, anyone caught with illegal drugs in places frequented by children or teens, or who works with youths, will still be prosecuted. So will those carrying a weapon along with their stash, as will people caught with drugs in isolated communities that are trying to curb misuse. Traffickers will also still face the full weight of the law.
But a person arrested for the possession of a small amount of illegal narcotics intended for personal use will no longer automatically be prosecuted – especially if the person has a substance-use disorder.
Even a person out on bail who violates conditions that prohibit drug use or possession will not be prosecuted, according to the new guidelines.
This is a step in the direction toward a more sensible and workable solution to Canada’s opioid crisis, and to substance misuse in general. It’s not the final step – much more needs to be done – but, given the reluctance of Ottawa and most of the provinces to seriously address this issue, it is welcome.
It’s also overdue. Canadian police chiefs, as well as public-health officials and policy makers, have been calling for the decriminalization of simple drug possession for some time. This page has also repeatedly pushed for it.
Advocates for decriminalization don’t want illegal drugs to become legal and available for sale in stores, the way cannabis and alcohol are in Canada. Far from it.
But as the death toll from opioid overdoses climbs by the hour in this country, and in some places outstrips the fatality rate of COVID-19, continuing to prosecute addicts and hoping that the criminal justice system will somehow magically cure them of their dependencies has proved to be a flop.
Last year alone, 3,823 people died in Canada from suspected opioid overdoses, according to federal government data, and 4,435 were hospitalized. Almost all of the deaths were accidental, and three-quarters of them involved street drugs that were laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid that can kill a person in small amounts.
This year has seen record monthly opioid-related death counts in British Columbia and Toronto, and a spike in Alberta. The COVID-19 crisis appears to be making the situation worse, by prompting addicts to use drugs in isolation, away from anyone who could help them if they overdose.
The last thing addicts need is to be further marginalized by a criminal record for drug possession, and to do time behind bars, where there is little possibility of treatment. What they desperately need is to be directed into the health care system, into restorative justice, into a Drug Treatment Court, or down some other path that can help them get over their substance-use disorder.
The new directive from the PPSC will help this happen. Some see it as a half-measure, since people possessing small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use will still be arrested by police and put through the courts.
But at least prosecutors can now redirect these cases away from the criminal justice system and into treatment. Plus, with time, police will likely stop laying charges for simple possession and start to divert users to places that can help them – something that some Canadian police departments are already doing.
This is why there is so much more to be done. The provinces don’t even have a consistent record on creating supervised drug consumption sites, where people can use drugs in the presence of medical personnel who can save them if they overdose, and also gently direct them into treatment. Cities such as Toronto have had to beg for help that has been slow in coming.
In the meantime, Canadian police chiefs, Canadian public-health experts and now Canada’s federal prosecutors have all recognized that drug addicts don’t belong in the criminal justice system.
Ottawa and the provinces pay lip service to the idea, and are willing to provide emergency aid, but they have yet to offer the broader health services that are the logical next part of the equation.
Canadians with substance-use disorders are being given a second chance, but one that doesn’t exist on the required scale. And that means the deaths are going to keep coming.
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