Last Friday, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network co-hosted the conference Chartering the Future of Drug Policy in Canada. The conference had a strong start. Federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott opened the conference by calling Canada’s opioid problem “nothing short of a public-health crisis”.
In response to this crisis, the Minister announced that she has ordered an expedited review of naloxone nasal spray. Known by its trade name, Narcan, this nasal spray can be used as an antidote to opioid overdoses. It is currently used in primarily western Canada to combat the ever-increasing number of fatal fentanyl drug overdoses.
[read more about her announcement here in The Globe and Mail]
This announcement came at the same time as the B.C. Centre for Disease Control admitted that steep prices are hindering access to naloxone, and authorities across the country are calling for the crisis of the number of opioid overdoses to be declared as a public health emergency. To note, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has now distributed over 9 700 free “Narcan kits”, of which 1 400 have been used to help people from overdosing, and about 8 900 people have been trained to administer the antidote through a provincial harm reduction program, Toward the Heart.
A drug considered to be 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, an investigation by the chief coroner of British Columbia found that fentanyl was detected in the blood of 148 people who died of a drug overdose in the first four months of 2016 alone. This is more than three times the number in the same period of last year.
In Vancouver, this translates to one death every five days.
[see more about the use of Narcan in the response to fentanyl overdoses in this article]
Following the Minister of Health’s speech, she gracefully took questions from the audience, including from people who use drugs, many of whom flagged the need to do something about the increase of opioid drug overdoses, particularly in western Canada.
João Goulão—the National Drug Coordinator of Portugal, who is often heralded as the architect of the country’s national drug policy—was also in attendance at the one-day conference to present on Portugal’s experience decriminalizing drugs. That’s right. The country decriminalized every drug, from marijuana to cocaine to heroin.
If you are caught with less than a 10-day supply of any narcotic today in Portugal, the penalty is almost the equivalent of a speeding ticket.
Before decriminalizing drugs, the former physician said that “it was impossible to find a Portuguese family that did not have (drug-related) problems”. But in treating drug-use as a public health problem, and not a criminal one, the theory goes that more people are likely to seek treatment and support.
Instead of heading to jail, it is more likely that the person caught with less than a 10-day supply will be referred a committee consisting of a health professional, lawyer and social worker that determines the best step forward. This multifactorial approach attempts to get to the bottom of the issue. So the national strategy was not just to decriminalize: it was to create a complete package of policies that focus on treatment, prevention, harm reduction, reintegration and methadone treatment, among other avenues.
And even though there has been hesitations and critiques about this strategy, the numbers have illustrated very positive public health outcomes.
Although drug use did appear to climb in the first few years after decriminalization, it has since decreased, with the number of cocaine and heroin addicts steadily decreasing. And with the decrease of intravenous drug use, the number of new HIV and HCV infections due to intravenous drug use has also plunged, falling from 1 000 in 2001 to less than 100 in 2013. And drug-caused deaths? They dropped from 80 to 20 per year, far below the European Union average.
But what the Canadian federal government is currently proposing is not as broad sweeping. They aren’t going to decriminalize all drugs, instead seeking to legalize one: marijuana. But in ignoring other drugs from this strategy, are they glancing over a more pressing public health emergency? Could Canada learn a thing or two from a country of 10 million people right across the Atlantic on how to create a more complete package of policies? So Canada, let’s start talking about not just one drug, but all drugs.