Opinion: Canada’s fight against fentanyl will suffer from joining U.S.-led war on drugs

Art by Kate Nugent.

In joining Trump’s renewal of the war on drugs at the recent United Nations General Assembly, Trudeau is ignoring its catastrophic failures of the past. 

In October, Canada took the right step forward in finally legalizing marijuana. However, a few weeks prior, it took ten steps back by signing onto the United States’ renewed anti-drug policy. This move leaves Canada’s attitude towards drugs ambiguous, and more importantly disregards the serious fentanyl crisis in the country.

The new policy, titled “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem” is a U.S.-led effort to eradicate the use of illicit drugs internationally. The focus is on strengthening law enforcement to reduce demand and cut the sources of supply — a seemingly simple yet incredibly vague solution.

This “renewed” plan bears a striking resemblance to Richard Nixon’s initial war on drugs campaign of 1971 — a profound disaster with negative repercussions that still impact the U.S. today. Nixon’s war on drugs is infamously known for raising police and military enforcement to slam down hard on drugs. The result? Mass incarceration and a steep increase in drug-related violence throughout the country. That wave of anti-drug sentiment and policy in the 1970s increased incarceration rates to five times their pre-campaign levels without much of a decrease in drug-related crime or drug use, according to research by San Francisco State University.

Since signing onto the new policy this year, Trudeau has received overwhelming backlash from Canadians accusing him of sucking up to President Donald Trump while turning his back on Canada’s serious drug overdose issue.

According to new data, there were just over 8,000 opioid-related deaths from January 2016 to March 2018. In 2017, there were nearly 4,000 deaths, and in the first three months of 2018 alone there were already over 1,000 deaths.

The fentanyl crisis in Canada has only gotten more serious in the past year. It is not a debate on whether action needs to be taken — rather, the question revolves around how the problem should be approached; preferably with a tangible solution rather than vague goals.

The better solution, though? Take a quick look at Portugal’s success in tackling their national heroin crisis by decriminalization. In the 1990s, Portugal was at the dangerous height of their heroin crisis, with thousands of people on the streets addicted to hard drugs and hundreds dying every year from overdoses. By the turn of the century, approximately 100,000 citizens were addicted to heroin which is when the country made a bold move to decriminalize all drugs in 2001. As per the country’s new laws, citizens who are caught with less than a 10-day supply of drugs were not thrown in jail but instead sent to a facility where they received treatment for their addiction.

Over the next decade, the number of people in treatment for drug use increased by 60 per cent. Portugal’s approach worked because they attacked the root of the problem by helping addicts, rather than just simply cleaning the surface of the crisis by punishing drug users with strict legal punishments.  

Decriminalization — not to be mistaken for legalization — means that although manufacturing and trafficking drugs remains illegal, possession and personal use do not have the same criminal repercussions. The objective of this approach is to take the funding used for enforcement and put it towards prevention, treatment and harm reduction. By doing this, Portugal was able to support addicts to get help and recover and by 2011, they had the lowest drug consumption rate in all of Europe.

There needs to be a serious paradigm shift in the way both international and domestic policy makers view the current drug problem: they need to seek out successful examples from around the world that are truly effective, rather than repeating policies which have already proven to be unproductive and harmful.

Canada’s fentanyl crisis needs an approach based in harm reduction rather than harsh enforcement policies. The help must be directed towards addicts who are at the core of the issue and suffer the most, as we’ve seen through the devastating number of overdose deaths.

Legalizing marijuana offers a look into the future at a healthy approach to all drugs, and in this same manner, Canada must continue in this progressive direction rather than looking into the past. There is a valuable lesson to be taken from Portugal, and that is looking at those in the throes of the opioid crisis not as criminals that must be locked up, but as citizens suffering and in need of serious and immediate help.

It is naïve and even dangerous to think that the renewed war on drugs will be effective. During the discussion at the UN General Assembly, there was no acknowledgement that the war on drugs has historically been a disaster, nor any talk of what can be changed to improve it this time around. Instead, the policy’s past failure has been ignored and the U.S. seems to be following Nixon’s mistakes.

As the saying goes: those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.