Editorial: It is time to decriminalize addictions to treat victims

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Every couple of hours someone’s son, daughter, sister, brother, mother or father succumbs to a drug overdose in Canada. Predating the current COVID-19 pandemic, our nation’s opioid crisis saw more than a dozen people die every day and far more are hospitalized. Of those overdoses, more than 94 percent were accidental and the problem has only become worse during the pandemic.

Young Canadians, those aged 15 to 24, are the fastest growing population requiring hospital care due to opioid overdoses—our children are dying.

No less a body than the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) is calling on federal lawmakers to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal consumption. A reluctance to call 911 has often been cited as the reason so many of those overdoses prove fatal.

The pandemic has severely curtailed the availability of street drugs normally used by those addicted to opioids, with the result that more and more fentanyl is being used by those who have little or no experience with the drug.

CACP  president Chief Const. Adam Palmer is on the record as saying that it is time to rethink how police and governments approach the use and abuse of illegal drugs in order to save lives.

“Arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective. It does not save lives,” he said in a recent submission to the government, adding that “the CACP recognizes substance use and addiction as a public health issue. Being addicted to a controlled substance is not a crime and should not be treated as such.”

“We recommend that Canada’s enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system,” he said in a recommendation that, while it could easily have been penned in a missive calling for defunding the police, instead comes stripped free of any partisan or right/left wing lens.

Instead this message comes as a stark recognition of the seriousness of the crisis and the ineffectiveness of the current approach in stemming the growing tide of tragedy.

There is a tendency to paint addiction as a lifestyle choice, a deliberate action that flouts law and order to choose that path, but that stigma is more often misapplied.

Ordinary people have become addicted to opioids, often through a medical system that has failed them when they sought help in dealing with severe pain. Addicts can be doctors, lawyers, grocery clerks or clergy—they are always somebody’s family.

It is long past due for our nation to take a page from those countries who have stepped away from a model of retributive punishment to an approach where addictions are treated as the health issue they demonstrably are. It is patently clear that the war on drug addicts is unwinnable and criminalizing small amounts of drugs causes far more harm than any good.

It is time to dismantle the barriers that exist to treating those trapped in addiction and open a door to potential recovery instead of a tomb.

Those who prey on addicts, the drug dealers and traffickers should still be dealt with harshly, but it is time to recognize that drug addiction is a health issue, not a crime.