From January 2016 to March 2021, 22,828 people died in Canada’s “other” pandemic: drug overdose deaths. This total does not include the numbers since March, which are reportedly high but not yet available. By contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has profoundly affected us all, has caused a similar number of Canadian deaths (27,500 through September). But while the COVID-19 pandemic has been front and center, the drug overdose crisis has seen a much more diffuse and tangled response.
We have tried several strategies to fight drug abuse – from the war on drugs, to just say no, to safe injection sites and more treatment options. On the other side of the equation, the promotion of OxyContin, a powerful opioid, by Purdue Pharma led many people to become addicted, often due to an initial pain problem. The relatively wide availability of this drug and its cousins – and of the unclean, dangerous street drugs people turn to once they are addicted – has exacerbated the problem to the point where we are now faced with a crisis.
In March of this year, the federal government convened the Health Canada Expert Task Force on Substance Use, which moved quickly to release reports in early May on how drug policy should address substance abuse and overdose.
Regulation & safe sites
The reports are readily available on the web, and Christians should pay attention to their recommendations for two reasons. First, we are not immune to this drug crisis. Christians and their families have been struck by addiction (often hidden) and overdose deaths, just like everyone else. Second, Christians have a long history of expressing love of neighbours by setting up hospitals and working with and on behalf of the sick. And drug addiction, once thought of as a willpower problem, now is more helpfully understood from a medical perspective as a mental and physical illness.
While the expert task force made multiple recommendations, two stand out and should be quickly implemented by this new government. One is to end criminal penalties for the simple possession and consumption of all drugs. The other is that the government change legislation to bring all types of substances used and abused under a common framework.
The first recommendation – decriminalization – is different from legalizing all drugs. People who are using and addicted to drugs should not also face criminal charges. But we should recognize that many substances pose profound dangers of addiction and toxicity, so availability needs to be regulated. Thus, permitting simple possession for users does not imply opening the door to widespread availability. It is cruel that a person who already suffers from addiction currently faces the additional stigma of criminalization.
The second significant recommendation looks at our complex regulatory framework for tobacco, alcohol and cannabis, which are legal but regulated in different ways, and the Controlled Drug and Substances Act, which deals with drugs that are currently illegal in most situations. All these substances have benefits but are harmful to some degree, and Canada needs a common legal framework with regulatory structures specific to different substances.
Related to these measures, the committee recognized that street drugs often contain a toxic mixture of substances and recommended providing a safe, regulated supply of clean drugs to people with a demonstrated need. This policy has been tried in other countries with positive results. Right now in B.C limited programs are (successfully) testing this approach. Multiple strategies, including a safe drug supply, safe injection sites and treatment options, are needed to address this pandemic.
As Christians, we should work to ensure that implementation does not stigmatize people, recognizing that some populations (such as Black and Indigenous) have historically experienced disproportionate and distinct harms from our drug policy. Prison and criminal records are not a loving way to help people with medical problems. We should seek ways to positively express our Christian love for people who have fallen between the cracks of our society and who suffer from the other pandemic.