Canada Considers Legalization of Recreational Drugs to Fight Overdose Crisis


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Users make their way into a pop-up safe injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Jan. 26, 2017. John Lehmann/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Caroline Owen

Since the end of January, several key Canadian government officials have been discussing a possible decriminalization of small amounts of recreational drugs, such as cocaine, opioids, and prescription painkillers, in order to combat Canada’s alarming growing opioid crisis. Since 2015, over 18,000 Canadians have fatally overdosed on drugs, and since then, the rate of annual ODs in Canada has been steadily increasing to now over 4,000 in 2020. Of those deaths, 75% were caused by Fentanyl overdoses and 85% were due to illegally-obtained drugs.


The reform movement, led by members of Canadian parliament, police, and citizens, aims to not only to decrease the availability of fentanyl and other opioids, but also discourage Canadians from abusing those drugs by legalizing and de-stigmatizing them. Proponents of the decision claim that decriminalizing opioids will not only allow the government to channel public funding towards substance abuse awareness programs and rehabilitation facilities instead of prisons, but will also shift responsibility from mitigating the drug crisis from law enforcement to healthcare providers – people who are much more qualified to treat drug abusers.


While Canadian society generally supports efforts to decrease the frequency of and stigma around drug use, it is split over whether the legalization of street drugs could effectively solve this medical crisis. Provincial governments are much more receptive to the idea – last month, the Vancouver city council voted unanimously to officially petition the Canadian Federal Government to amend Criminal Codes to decriminalize small quantities of these drugs. Additionally, in a statement from late January, John Horgon, the Premier (leader) of British Columbia, expressed his support for legalization, stating that current statistics mandate a dramatic nation-wide effort to solve the opioid crisis by any means possible.


Despite obvious public support for the movement, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not fully embraced a decriminalization of street drugs. In September of 2020, Trudeau expressed he would not back a bill supporting the decriminalization of opioids, stating it was not a “silver bullet” solution and that he planned to keep those drugs illegal while prioritizing safer ways to use them. That being said, Trudeau also acknowledged that “the opioid crisis is much more of a health issue rather than a justice issue” and stated his intent to work with Canadian lawmakers to protect the health of drug addicts rather than seek to punish them.


In the past, the Canadian government has taken substantive action to combat the rise of drug-related offenses. Since the early 2000s, Canadian lawmakers have unsuccessfully attempted to decriminalize marijuana, which was finally achieved in 2018 when Canada became the second country to legalize marijuana for recreational use after Uruguay (while recreational marijuana use is legal in the Netherlands, as a substance, it is illegal). Additionally, since 2003, Canada has created 37 “legal injection sites” where drug addicts are able to use drugs in a safe and supervised environment. In an effort to reduce the risk of drug overdoses, these sites aim to reduce the risk around using drugs by checking users’ drugs for abnormal substances, providing sterile injection equipment, and having Narcan and other od-preventative medication on hand.


Given Canada’s long history of contradictory opinions surrounding drug reforms, it is not clear if a set decision on the decriminalization of opioids will take place anytime soon. That being said, it’s evident that Canadians are dedicated to decreasing the stigma and physical risk around abusing drugs and show willingness to compromise on this issue.