British Columbia

Coordination is key in battling B.C.'s overdose epidemic, says visiting Portuguese expert

As part of Recovery Week, Dr. João Goulão is in Metro Vancouver to share his ideas with addiction specialists and policy makers during the ongoing overdose crisis.

Dr. João Goulão says drug decriminalization in Canada could be first step to a centralized overdose response

Dr. João Goulão, seen here in Lisbon, says a centralized nationwide effort is needed to combat Canada's worsening overdose epidemic. (EMCDDA / Flickr)

​"I must confess, the coordination between all the responses is not as perfect as it could be."

That's the first observation offered by Dr. João Goulão as he spoke with Rick Cluff on The Early Edition, taking time out of his first trip to Vancouver. Goulão is the head of Portugal's Service for Intervention in Addictive Behaviour and Dependencies.

He's visiting Metro Vancouver as part of Recovery Week, an initiative that brings together global addictions specialists to discuss a continuum of care for drug users.

Goulão has been widely recognized for his work overhauling and designing Portugal's current drug policy framework in the early 2000s, which included the decriminalization of all illicit narcotics.

The drug policy expert toured Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside before sharing his ideas and recommendations with addiction specialists and policy makers.

The timing of Goulão's trip isn't a coincidence, as the city has already surpassed the grim milestone of having more overdose deaths by September of this year than in all of 2016.

Goulão says the better coordination of public policy as well as the criminal justice and healthcare systems is integral to saving the lives of drug users in B.C.

To achieve a higher level of coordination, Goulão points to the decriminalization approach Portugal used as a means of shifting the onus from law enforcement to policy makers and other areas of government.

"In our case, decriminalization was important because it clearly pointed to leadership for health and social welfare," says Goulão. 

"Before that, the responsibility was much more standing on police and justice services, and there was not clear cooperation."

Goulão says as the head of Intervention in Addictive Behaviour and Dependencies he coordinates and works very closely with 11 Portuguese national ministries responsible for files ranging from social services to education.

He says because his department is allowed to work closely with these offices on a federal level, it promotes participation from each of the ministries and fosters a holistic approach when tackling the issue of addiction. Goulão says the result is a nationwide and centralized effort, something he feels is lacking in Canada.

'Not the magic bullet'

The idea of decriminalizing illicit drugs in B.C. has been floated before, but Goulão cautions that alone won't fix the problem.

"It's not the magic bullet, but I believe it's important," says Goulão.

He says while decriminalization forces a government to deal with addiction as a health issue and not a criminal issue, it must come along with coordinated harm reduction and rehabilitation efforts.

In addition, Goulão stresses there is a big difference between decriminalization and legalization.

He says it's possible for the state to show clear disapproval of drug use while still treating someone suffering from addiction with the same dignity as a person suffering from any other disease.

"People that suffer from addiction have the same right to the same responses from the state."

Goulão admits that, just like in Portugal, there's no simple solution to an overdose epidemic.

He'll be meeting with other addictions specialists at the Recovery Capital Conference of Canada in New Westminster, B.C., as part of Recovery Week.

Goulão will be delivering a keynote speech on Thursday.

With files from The Early Edition