Overdose deaths are increasing in Canada and advocates say decriminalization of drugs coupled with stepped-up health services could reverse the trend.

Decriminalize drugs, urges the city of Vancouver

Plagued with increasing drug overdose deaths, the western city of Vancouver is calling on the government of Canada to decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs. The city wants to couple this with treatment and overdose prevention services in a bid to turn the issue into one of public health rather than criminal justice.

‘Politicians are afraid…people are dying’

“Advocates have been calling for this discussion for more than three decades,” says Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer who teaches drug policy at the University of Ottawa. “In a sense we have a drug problem, but we have a bigger political problem because…politicians are afraid to take on this issue and unfortunately, people are dying as a consequence of that.”


Canada will decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana within a year, but there is no sign it is considering doing so with other street drugs. In January of 2018, there were 33 overdose deaths in Vancouver, and there has been a growing wave of deaths across the country, in many cases involving the powerful opioid fentanyl.

At least 2,458 people died of an opioid overdose in Canada in 2016. Drug fatalities are increasing at an alarming rate. (CBC/file)

Portugal sets the example

Advocates point to the experience of Portugal which changed its law to make possession of drugs for personal use an offence punished with a ticket rather than a criminal charge. If users there are determined to have a drug problem they may be provided help from lawyers, psychologists, and social workers.

Oscapella says the approach seems to have worked very well given that Portugal has the lowest death rate from drug overdose in Europe, the use of heroine decreased from 100,000 in 2001 to 25,000 now, and the rate of HIV among injection drug users has plummeted.

Eugene Oscapella says a health-based approach to drug use would reduce the number of overdose deaths in Canada.

Middle class families affected

Overdose deaths no longer affect only the marginalized. Oscapella says that as more middle class families are affected there will be increasing pressure governments to take action. It would be up to the federal government to change drug laws, and up to provincial and municipal governments to provide health and social services to unhealthy users.

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