Personal drug use should be decriminalized, addictions expert says

An addictions expert has what might seem like a counterintuitive solution to the Alberta's opioid crisis — decriminalization of all drugs.

Doctor says removing barriers to help saves lives — but not all agree

Dr. Hakique Virani is an addiction and public health specialist at the University of Alberta. (Andrew Brown/CBC)

An addictions expert has what may seem like a counterintuitive solution to the Alberta's opioid crisis — the decriminalization of all drugs.

"We aren't going to make as much headway as we need to without some major drug policy change," said Dr. Hakique Virani, a specialist in addiction and public health at the University of Alberta.

"Personal drug use needs to be decriminalized and the possession of small amounts of substances needs not to result in people going to jail."

Virani spoke at an expert forum hosted by the Alberta Liberals in northwest Calgary Wednesday evening. The party, and the doctor, are calling on the federal government to amend the criminal code.

Virani said those that understand toxicology know that the line between which substances are criminalized — and which are not — doesn't necessarily make sense from a medical standpoint.

"It's very artificial for us to start delineating between those that should be criminalized and those that shouldn't," he said.

Albertans are dying at alarming rates from opioid overdoses.- Brian Hahn, father of an adolescent in recovery

Virani pointed to alcohol, which can have significantly more negative medical side effects than a substance such as the recently legalized cannabis.

Removing barriers from people getting help — like by decriminalizing personal drug use — could save lives, he said.

"People who start to struggle with substances don't come forward to tell somebody who might be able to help them, not only because of the stigma that's attached to it, but literally that their substance use makes them a criminal in this country. That's not OK," Virani said.

Decriminalization would not mean the same thing as the recent cannabis legalization. It would mean charges for the possession of small amounts or use of illegal drugs would be lifted. However, there would still be penalties for manufacturing and selling those substances.

Public health issue

Several prominent medical figures across Canada have called for decriminalization. The approach has been tested in Portugal, which has had success in tackling the country's heroin epidemic. The country saw decreases in both drug overdose deaths and HIV infection rates.

Alberta Liberal Leader David Khan said personal drug use should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal one, so that money can be moved from enforcement into healthcare.

"We spent 100 years trying to prosecute the war on drugs globally. It's failed. It's much better to treat it as a health issue," he said.

Early intervention instead

However, not everyone agrees it's the solution.

"I would agree it is a health issue not a crime issue," said Dr. Chris Wilkes, who also spoke at the panel. "However, associated with drug use is often crime against property, and you need to have some limits and supports which initiate treatment."

Wilkes said instead of decriminalization, he'd like to see improved mental health literacy, early interventions and integrated services.

As the opioid crisis continues to spread, advocates are calling for expanded harm-reduction policies. (Lethbridge Police Service)

Brian Hahn, whose adolescent daughter is in recovery, said whatever steps are taken need to be taken carefully and thoughtfully.

"Albertans are dying at alarming rates from opioid overdoses," Hahn said. "It's really time as a society we find the collective strength and will to address that problem."

In the first half of 2018, 355 Albertans died from accidental opioid overdoses. Nearly 700 people died from such opioid overdoses the year before.

With files from Andrew Brown