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Rights + Justice

We Moved Swiftly on the Pandemic. Why Not the Overdose Crisis?

VIDEO: Drug policy expert Don MacPherson reflects on the ‘disastrous consequences’ of decades-long inaction.

Amelia Williams 22 Apr

Amelia Williams is a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media. She is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Find her on Twitter @ajlwilliams13.

For drug policy expert Donald MacPherson, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven what he’s been arguing for years: British Columbia’s public health authorities are capable of the communication, adaptation and leadership needed to address the overdose crisis.

Five years after the province declared the crisis a public health emergency, the situation is worsening. Last year saw the highest number of overdose deaths in B.C. history, as drugs became increasingly toxic and the pandemic forced more people to use alone.

“We’re really at a point that something has to give in terms of our response to this,” MacPherson says. “If you didn’t lose someone to COVID in B.C. this year, you may have lost someone to the drug toxicity crisis.”

In the latest instalment of the Salt Spring Forum video series, MacPherson sat down for a virtual interview with Kisae Petersen, the executive director of Islanders Working Against Violence, to discuss the policy changes needed to address the crisis.

MacPherson sees the pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild B.C.’s approach to drug policy and shift the emphasis from enforcement and criminalization to a public health model led by experts.

Current drug policy “is so fundamentally flawed,” says MacPherson, but “out of this disaster we have a chance to bring the best minds together.”

MacPherson says that it’s been clear for a long time that the prohibition of drug use has had “disastrous consequences,” punishing users while allowing the global black market to flourish.

There have been moments of progress towards more effective drug policy in the province. MacPherson explains that a sudden increase in overdose deaths in the 1990s forced people to reconsider the way they approached drug policy.

“We started to begin to accept that people will continue to use substances, and that maybe we need to put our efforts to trying to prioritize safety and to stop pretending that through criminalization and drug prohibition that we will actually succeed in getting rid of this toxic market, or actually succeed in convincing people to not use these substances.”

However, the progress made in the 1990s and early 2000s was not enough to change the system. Drug use was never decriminalized, and so the conditions that created the crisis 30 years ago were not fully addressed.

“The sad part is, we have to go through a crisis four times worse than in the ‘90s to again open that door to perhaps, maybe getting some level of consensus that what we’ve been doing needs to be totally thrown out, and we need to transform the way we respond to substance use in society.”

MacPherson says that if the possession of drugs for personal use was decriminalized, the billions of dollars spent on policing drug users could instead be used to support people, redirected, for example, to mental health services, housing, employment opportunities and poverty alleviation.

“It’s not the drugs that are the problem. Problems with drugs are a symptom of something else,” he says. “We need to be investing in people, so that people can grow up and navigate the terrain of substances that they will come into contact with, and to make wise decisions about using these substances.”

The stigma surrounding personal drug use remains a barrier to decriminalization. However, MacPherson says the legalization of recreational cannabis is proof that can change.

Regulation works to “keep cannabis out of the hands of youth, to keep money out of the hands of organized crime, criminals, and to allow reasonable access for adults to smoke, consume in whatever way they wanted, a regulated product,” he says. “The same logic applies to all the other substances.”

Including people who use drugs in policy decisions and conversations with citizens, politicians and community leaders is an important step in creating effective solutions and reducing the stigma against substance users, he says.

“There’s a whole expertise that has been left out of the equation for so long, because people have been so highly marginalized, stigmatized, pushed aside, pushed into the shadows, and now you’re hearing some very articulate people who use drugs or used to use drugs just helping us figure this out.”

Now, MacPherson says, it’s time to apply the “public health emergency thinking” fuelling the government’s pandemic response to the drug toxicity crisis. He notes that B.C. pharmacies have been effective at distributing COVID-19 vaccines and could also be used to provide safe drugs and outreach to people across the province.

“It’s time to move, it’s time to chart a new path forward, and find enough people that will give politicians the ease to actually move forward on some of these things.”

The Tyee is partnering with Salt Spring Forum on this video interview and others, including with physician and author Kevin Patterson, China historian Timothy Brook, climate change author and activist Bill McKibben, and former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin.  [Tyee]

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