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Time has come to decriminalize psychoactive drugs: board of health

Local health unit says harsh penalties and jail time for personal drug use aren't working; money would be better spent on treatment and other services

Local public health officials have added their voice to a growing list of communities in the push to decriminalize personal use of psychoactive drugs.  

The Simcoe Muskoka Board of Health endorsed a statement by the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) at is June meeting.

The CPHA has recommended decriminalizing possession of small quantities of illegal substances intended for personal use, as well as ensuring young offenders aren’t charged with trafficking small amounts of drugs also intended for personal use.

Decriminalization means the removal of criminal penalties for the possession/use of illicit substances for personal use only. Alternate approaches to criminal charges and jail time would include treatment, fines, support groups and meetings with professionals to decide appropriate action.

The local board of health says money spent on battling the growing drug problem as a criminal component could be better spend funnelled instead into addiction and treatment services.

Dr. Lisa Simon, associate medical officer of health with the local board, said enforcement policies haven’t reduced the supply of illegal drugs, nor curtailed their use. This is causing additional harm to both drug users and society in general, she said.

There is a broad spectrum of substances that would fall under the psychoactive banner, including cocaine and crystal meth, as well as opioids, such as heroin.

The board of health, which is the governance body for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, is advocating that the federal government explore decriminalization for personal use.

Janice Greco, manager of the injury and substance misuse prevention program at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, says the spotlight should be shifted away from drug users.

“We believe the focus should be on traffickers and dealers,” she said. “But for the individual, the criminal approach to that person when it comes to substance abuse hasn’t proven decrease crime or substance abuse as a whole.”

If the old system isn’t working, it’s time for change, Greco said.

“I think there’s a growing interest in looking different drug-policy approaches, because criminalization hasn’t worked,” she said. “We need to relook at this policy as whole. It’s time. When you look at the opioid crisis that we’re in right now, drug use is increasing.”

With the increase in use also comes more toxic supply on the streets, making for an even more dangerous scenario.

“From a drug-policy perspective, we’re doing all we can to stem that tide,” Greco said, “but we think there needs to be a drug-policy change.”

Canada’s criminal approach to drug use often results in charges which further hinder a person down the road in life with such things as finding a job, Greco said.

Many people who are addicted to drugs don’t want to be, she added, noting the numbers also show not all users develop “hardcore addiction issues.”

Research indicates that only 11.6% of drug use coincides with problematic use and addiction.

“You can have people who use on the weekend, or monthly or sporadically, but who aren’t addicted and don’t go down that unfortunate path,” Greco said.

A large number of drug-related offenses in Canada are possession offenses, especially relating to ‘harder’ drugs such as cocaine and opioids, but also cannabis. While not deterring drug use, these charges create a large fiscal and logistical burden on enforcement, judicial and incarceration services, estimated at $2 billion per year in Canada, according to the board of health.

For people who use drugs recreationally and end up with a criminal charge, Greco says that’s not solving anything.

“Probably what’s required is social services, so if you’re caught using an illicit substance, there should be other services,” she said. “But with decriminalization, what we’re saying is that money that goes currently to courts, the judicial system and the prison system gets refunnelled into social services.

“We think they should realign those funds to better help those people,” Greco added.

According to the board’s report, roughly a quarter billion people around the world use illegal psychoactive substances, representing an increase of 20% over the last two decades.

“It is therefore apparent that traditional methods used to combat this trend in Canada and internationally, such as criminalization of drug use and attempting to eliminate the drug supply, are not working,” the report states.

Until there is a change in the laws, though, the police approach to illegal drugs will remain status quo.

“The OPP is aware of comments that have bee made with regards to this matter and will continue to enforce the law accordingly,” said OPP Sgt. Peter Leon.

Barrie city police has a similar stance.

Const. Sarah Bamford said the city’s police department is aware of recent reports regarding the “growing trend of public health officials exploring the move towards decriminalizing drugs.

“Unfortunately, the use of illegal substances is still prevalent and a concern within communities across Ontario,” she added. “That being said, our (police) service continues to educate the public with the assistance of our community partners on the danger of drug use and its harmfulness.”

Bamford said criminalization of such substances “remains the principal tool in attempts to control their use. Until such legalization deems otherwise, possessing illicit drugs is still prohibited under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and will continue to be enforced.”

The board of health report notes that taking a prohibitionist approach to drugs “has contributed to significant harms to drug users and society as a whole while having little effect in terms of decreasing levels of consumption.”

The board also cites international studies which have shown decriminalization can reduce harms without increasing either drug use or supply.

Some countries around the world have decriminalized drugs and instead put those enforcement dollars into social services for people battling addiction.

Greco points to Portugal, which has decriminalized psychoactive substances and is often studied now by other nations, as a prime example of a country that has turned the entire process on its head.

“It has shown positive results in terms of decreased crime and decreased substance abuse,” she said.

Other countries are following suit. Where these alternate policies have been implemented with a corresponding investment in health, treatment and harm reduction infrastructure and support, positive health outcomes have resulted.

Portugal instituted such reforms in 2001 based on the recognition that the use of illegal substance is primarily a health problem, not a criminal one.

Within the Portuguese system, people charged with possessing illegal psychoactive substances meet with a ‘dissuasion commission’, allowing for a wide variety of options including discharge, administrative fines and access to treatment.

The European nation has seen a marked decrease in drug-induced deaths. Its system has reduced incidence and improved management of HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis, as individuals are brought in contact

with the health-care system.

Conversely, research shows countries with the highest levels of criminalization and harshest penalties have the highest rates of problematic drug use and the accompanying health issues that come with it.

Other countries have begun to pursue, or continue to evolve, various approaches to decriminalization such as Switzerland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany and Australia.

Meanwhile, the local health unit is at the forefront of the decriminalization movement.

“We’re definitely pretty early in,” Greco said.

The City of Toronto has done a community consultation regarding decriminalization and that report is to be delivered to the board of health there on Monday.

Recreational use of marijuana is scheduled to become legal in Canada on Oct. 17, but Greco points out there’s a big difference between legalization and decriminalization.

“Not all drugs are created equal,” she said. “But we’re not advocating for legalization of all substances; we’re advocating for decriminalization.”

The local board of health will send its endorsement to the federal and provincial ministers of health and attorneys-general, as well as copies to other boards of health in Ontario, the Association of Local Public Health Agencies, the Ontario and Canadian public health associations, MPs, MPPs, mayors, councils and the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) in Simcoe Muskoka.

Raymond Bowe

About the Author: Raymond Bowe

Raymond is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting from Simcoe County since 2000
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