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Opinion: Decriminalizing drug users is only one part of the equation

Without also legalizing drugs, decriminalization will do little to stop overdoses
Emergency crew respond to an overdose in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. File photo by Dan Toulgoet

Last week the province announced its proposal for decriminalizing drug users. It’s welcome news, and something drug users, researchers, and public health experts have been advocating for for years. While we wait for the federal government’s response to the plan, B.C. must immediately implement a legally regulated safe supply of drugs. If they don’t, decriminalization alone will do little to stop overdoses.

The reason? Decriminalizing people who use drugs does nothing to address the toxic unregulated drug supply that is killing people.

Let’s start with why decriminalizing drug use is necessary. The ongoing criminalization of people who use drugs has contributed to the HIV and AIDS epidemic and other infectious diseases, fuelled poverty and homelessness, and entrenched racism and colonialism. It creates stigma, shaping how society views people who use drugs. It wrongly places certain substance use within a moral lens. It puts drug users in the criminal system without the possibility of ever escaping. Once you’re deemed a drug user by the law, you’re forever branded a criminal.

When I was living on the Downtown Eastside and addicted to drugs, I was thrown into jail countless times for simple possession. I have over 50 drug convictions – too many to keep track of – and more than 100 charges on my record. Usually, it was for carrying as little as half a rock of crack. I would get charged, jailed, and stood before a judge on pretty much a weekly basis.

I would get released only with the stipulation that I couldn’t carry drugs or any drug paraphernalia, and I would be red-zoned from the 100-block on Hastings, meaning I was essentially banned from the neighbourhood even though that’s where I lived and where Insite is – the one place I could use drugs in relative safety.

I used heroin to fend off sickness. I needed drugs to function. But because I could no longer use them at Insite I would use alone under the viaduct, in an alley, or in a parkade – anywhere I could to escape the police. This is extremely dangerous and I can guarantee that many people have died because of these circumstances of being isolated and using alone where no one is there to help you if you overdose.

Naloxone only works if somebody’s there. And because I was avoiding police and the threat of being tossed into jail again, I would throw away my paraphernalia wherever I used it.

The sad thing is, my experience was and is not unique. It’s crushingly normal. This is how the system of criminalization beats people down, putting people in a dizzying downward spiral – a cycle that is nearly impossible to break. It is defeating and dehumanizing.

Decriminalizing people who use drugs is about justice. It’s essential to reconciliation. It is an important and necessary step to relieve this pressure that drug users face. But overdose deaths will not end if and when the federal government approves BC’s proposal. The deaths will only end when we address what’s causing them – the toxic, unpredictable, and unregulated drug supply.

Leaving the drug market in the control of organized criminals will only make the drug supply increasingly dangerous. The war on drugs is a $100 billion a year global industry. Billions are spent to prevent drugs from coming into the country and billions are spent to enforce it once they’ve inevitably gotten into the country.

Despite those billions, drugs are incredibly easy to access. Imagine we re-directed those funds to regulation, treatment, and prevention efforts, and guaranteed income and housing for people instead?

Eventually, every one of us will be impacted by this crisis. A family member, a neighbour, a friend. Each one of us will know someone if we keep the current system in place. We cannot leave this for the next generation to try to fix when we know what the solution is now.

The bare minimum the federal government can do is approve BC’s plan. What really needs to happen, though, is for the feds to change our current drug laws and end the war on drugs once and for all.

While we wait for them to act, at least 17 Canadians will die every single day because of the toxic drug supply.

Guy Felicella is a Peer Clinical Advisor at the BC Centre on Substance Use. Follow him on Twitter at @guyfelicella.

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