British Columbia has initiated a landmark 3-year pilot program aimed at combating the opioid crisis. The program decriminalizes possession of up to 2.5 grams of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, meth and MDMA for individuals aged 18 and above. The pilot program is the first of its kind in Canada and aims to reduce the shame and stigma surrounding drug use, thus encouraging people to seek help without fear.
This is crucial as the stigma surrounding drug use is a significant factor in preventing people from seeking help, leading to fatal overdoses from solitary drug use. To learn more about the decriminalization model, click here.
Over the past five years, drug overdose deaths have spiked across Canada, particularly in British Columbia, where fentanyl-related deaths have more than doubled. To address the overdose epidemic, previous initiatives have included supervised injection sites, drug testing for fentanyl, and prescription heroin for those who haven’t responded to other treatments.
How are other provinces responding?
The Saskatchewan government stated that there are no plans to follow B.C.’s lead by implementing a similar program.
“B.C. gets to be the guinea pig, if you like, for this pilot project with the federal government,” Saskatchewan Minister for Justice Bronwyn Eyre said in December 2022 after the plan was announced. SourceBrooke Kruger, “Saskatchewan continues talk about drug decriminalization following start of B.C. trial” Global News, January 31, 2023
The statement mentions the lack of knowledge regarding the potential long-term impact of decriminalizing illicit drugs on public safety as one of the primary reasons for not implementing a similar program in Saskatchewan. Instead, the province is focused on providing funding for addiction and treatment programs and services for the next three years.
This approach is a positive development as it acknowledges the need for proper infrastructure before decriminalization can be effective. This viewpoint is echoed by Chief Evan Bray of the Regina Police Service, who stresses that harm reduction services must accompany decriminalization for it to be successful.
How well has drug decriminalization worked in other countries?
Oregon conducted its own trial of drug decriminalization, which was largely unsuccessful in addressing fatal overdoses and reducing drug abuse. On the contrary, these issues have only worsened. In contrast, Portugal’s experience with drug decriminalization has been positive, with a decrease in drug-related deaths and crime rates since 2001. Portugal now has some of the lowest drug use rates in the European Union, and drug deaths plummeted in the first five years after their reforms.
João Goulão, the architect of Portugal’s drug policy, told Postmedia News’ Daphne Bramham in 2018 that decriminalization is not a silver bullet.
“If you decriminalize and do nothing else, things will get worse. The most important part was making treatment available to everybody who needed it for free. This was our first goal.” sourceDeRosa, Katie “Decriminalization alone is not enough, experts warn” Vancouver Sun, January 30, 2023
The Clock is Ticking
Saskatchewan has seen a steady increase in drug overdose deaths since 2014.
In 2022, a record 421 people in Saskatchewan died due to drug overdose, according to a Drug Toxicity Report released last month. That number has seen an increase over the past nine years.
In 2021, 410 people died from overdoses, up from 325 in 2020. Two years prior, 172 overdose deaths were recorded in 2018.
According to statistics provided by the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, 2014 was the last year the overdose crisis didn’t worsen, going from 88 in 2013 to 85 the year following. sourceKeenan Sorokan, “Saskatchewan not planning to decriminalize drug possession” CTV News Saskatoon, February 1, 2023