Decriminalization of hard drugs in Canada is doomed without a long-term, well-funded strategy

Doug FirbyCanadian cities must do something to curb the alarming rate of deaths from lethal drugs like heroin, fentanyl, cocaine or methamphetamine. But the solution, if one is even possible, should not be through decriminalization.

As disastrous experiments in British Columbia and Oregon so starkly show, decriminalizing the possession of hard drugs has led to an increase in deaths and turned some city streets into hellish no-go zones for citizens who aren’t there to get a hit. If you’ve been to Portland recently, as I have, you’ll see portions of the downtown transformed into post-apocalyptic encampments of drug-addicted homeless people. Vancouver’s East Hastings, meanwhile, has been branded “Canada’s worst street.”

Yet, despite tales of horror from those two jurisdictions, the City of Toronto is pressing ahead with an application to Health Canada to be allowed to decriminalize possession of hard drugs. The obstinance of public health officials in that city has sent Ontario Premier Doug Ford into apoplectic fits.

Ford argued governments should instead invest in drug treatment centres.

“That’s what we should be doing. Not legalizing hard drugs. Like, you’ve got to be kidding me. Like, letting people do cocaine, and crack and heroin? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ford said last week. “I will fight this tooth and nail.”

Decriminalization drugs canada

Photo by Hal Gatewood

Related Stories
Safe supply programs creating a surge in new opioid users

Wokeness is killing Vancouver

The false assumptions behind drugs and crime and punishment

Toronto health officials are not wrong that addiction should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal matter. But there is an overpowering naïveté in the belief that decriminalization will, in itself, save lives. Portland’s experiment failed because officials didn’t do enough of the other things that must be done at the same time.

Portugal – the poster child of drug death reduction – provides an instructive example. In 1999, Lisbon was known as the “heroin capital of Europe,” and overdose deaths were averaging 360 a year in the country of 10 million citizens. Alarmed officials formed a multi-partisan party coalition that backed sweeping change that redefined the problem of addiction. Through an eight-point program, of which decriminalization was just one part, Portugal effectively altered the environment around drug addicts to change their behaviour.

The detailed strategy included shifting from court-based incarceration to custody in the Commissions for the Dissuasions from Drug Abuse (CDTs); creating mobile teams to deal with addicts on the street; staffing those teams with experts; creating ways to test and administer treatment; decriminalizing (not legalize) possession of small amounts of drugs and encourage addicts to seek treatment or to face penalties; helping addicts find employment; tracking the costs of drug addiction, including the total cost to society; expand public education; and, giving treatment officials, instead of police officers, the power to make decisions about drug users.

The initial results were spectacular. By 2018, the number of heroin addicts in Portugal had dropped from 100,000 to 25,000. The country also achieved the lowest drug-related death rate in Western Europe, one-tenth of Britain and one-fiftieth of the U.S. João Goulão, a former family doctor who designed Portugal’s radical approach, was hailed as a genius.

Then things began to unravel. As the country struggled with budget deficits, Portugal reduced resources allocated to its programs, undercutting efforts to encourage addicts into rehabilitation programs. Drug dealers, meanwhile, continued to use Portugal as an entry point to import hard drugs into European Union countries.

Between 2015 and 2021, drug users in treatment declined from 1,150 to 352. Funding dropped from $82.7 million in 2012 to $17.4 million in 2021. Overdose rates have reached a 12-year high and have doubled in Lisbon since 2019. Crime, often drug-related, rose 14 percent from 2021 to 2022.

“What we have today no longer serves as an example to anyone,” Goulão says.

As Gregory Shea, senior fellow at Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, writes: “To code the case of Portugal’s illegal drug initiative … as a binary choice – in this case, to decriminalize drugs or not – misrepresents the change effort required and, consequently, how to sustain it. .. . If you decriminalize and do nothing else, things will get worse.”

In short, decriminalizing hard drugs while failing to adequately fund other strategies will not only fail but, worse, will likely create an expectation that lifetime drug use is a right.

In British Columbia, Premier David Eby said he hopes other jurisdictions in Canada will learn from his province’s mistakes. While he maintains addiction should be treated as a health issue and not a criminal one, public consumption of illicit drugs must have hard limits.

Do public health officials in Toronto understand all that is required for a decriminalization effort to succeed? It’s not clear that they do, nor that they have the ability to tap into the substantial resources required to reduce addiction. All levels of government need to be committed to this effort, not for one year or five years, but over the long haul. As in, quite possibly, as far into the future as we can see.

The federal government, which initially supported B.C.’s decriminalization experiment, has become more circumspect. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks told the House of Commons it’s too early to draw conclusions about drug decriminalization: “We’re still evaluating the data,”

Skip the data and listen to the people across the country who are fed up with witnessing the rampant consumption of hard drugs on the streets. It’s not the way any of us want to live, and it’s not the Canada we want to live in.

Provincial governments, notably Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, are also largely opposed to decriminalization. Other provinces say they have no plans to go there. And Conservative Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre, our prime minister-in-waiting, has been outspoken against it.

So, with three levels of government at odds over decriminalization, the prospects of running a co-ordinated strategy that would mirror Portugal’s initially successful project couldn’t appear dimmer.

The real lesson from B.C.’s disaster is that if you’re not ready to go all in on doing it right, you are much better off not doing it all.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

For interview requests, click here.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

© Troy Media
Troy Media is an editorial content provider to media outlets and its own hosted community news outlets across Canada.