By Mykayla McGowan
Are Canadian Drug Strategies Out of Commission?
Substance use is the fuel that keeps the dumpster fire of Canada’s criminal justice complex and health care system ablaze. With 1 in 5 Canadians experiencing a substance use disorder in their lifetime, it is no wonder that the country we call home harbours the fastest-growing rate of overdose mortality globally.
The current Drugs and Substances strategy is failing Canadians and requires immediate modification.
Canada’s Current Situation
Approximately 6 million Canadians meet the criteria for a substance use disorder during their lifetime. Potential harms from such use have heightened amid Canada’s opioid crisis, as supplies have become increasingly contaminated with synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
Canada’s Drugs and Substances Strategy emphasizes four key pillars to prevent and treat problematic substance use. The pillars are:
- Prevention: educate the public about the risks of substance use
- Treatment: support treatment and rehabilitation services
- Harm reduction: reduce the negative effects of substance use on individuals and communities
- Enforcement: address production, trafficking and diversion of drugs
What’s Not Clicking in Canada?
The current Canadian system unloads enforcement and harm reduction responsibilities onto provinces and territories to deal with individually. The lack of a cohesive, national strategy focused on reducing problematic drug use and overdose has set Canada and its citizens up for failure.
Research, Evidence, and Evaluation Issues
The government fails to ground its substance use policy in evidence. The country does not have a central organization for data collection and analysis on substance use issues, as exists elsewhere, such as in Australia and the United States.
If things do not change, Canadians will start to feel the consequences of the inaction taken by our federal government.
Is Anyone Doing it Right?
Although it is easy to critic drug strategies across the globe for one reason or another, some countries are doing it right.
Take Portugal, for example. As of 2001, the Portuguese federal government decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs as a part of a push to treat substance use as an issue of public health rather than public order in response to high rates of HIV linked to injection drug use.
Portugal’s strategy acts as a cohesive, nationwide plan that enforces policies on a case-by-case basis. Problematic drug use is addressed by dissuasion committees rather than the criminal justice system, where sanctions, charges, or voluntary treatment referrals are imposed instead of jail time.
As a result, Portugal has enjoyed various benefits, including:
- Reduced problematic drug use and incidences of HIV/AIDS
- Increased number of citizens utilizing treatment facilities
- Fewer drug-induced deaths
- Overall social costs of drug misuse declined
Why it Works for Portugal
The Portuguese drug strategy is informed by evidence and research conducted within the country. Portugal identified the issues they wanted to address and approached them in a culturally and socially informed manner.
This blog has two purposes:
- Criticize the Canadian federal government’s approach to drug use (which is well deserved)
- Identify a need for change
Imagine that the Canadian federal government wants to adopt an effective strategy to reduce problematic substance use. They would need to:
- Accept contextual factors facing Canadians
- Be open to innovation
- Situate any intervention within an evidence-informed continuum of prevention, harm reduction, and treatment
- An evidence-informed continuum supports the collection and monitoring of data and is required to evaluate the success of any policy-based approach to substance use. This continuum allows for corrections to be made easily, as they are grounded in evidence and account for changes in external factors, such as trends in drug consumption or overdose rates
A great place to start would be forming a national organization for data collection and analysis on substance use issues.
Creating such an organization will allow the government to self-reflect and identify the most pressing problems that require immediate attention, such as the opioid crisis. Only once the key issues are pinpointed, the organization could conduct research to find the most effective solutions for our countries problems.