Away With The Stigma

Updated: Oct 14

Brady Dalke was an athletic, spirited, and passionate 25-year-old British Columbian who was on the path to making a full recovery from his opioid addiction. He used opioids to cope with his anxiety and stress. Then, without warning, one fatal Valentine's day found him deceased from a fentanyl overdose. The next day, February 15, 2020, was the day when the world became duller for his close friends and family. They received the news of Brady’s passing early in the morning with a phone call. Brady’s life is one of thousands that the overdose epidemic has stolen.

On November 1st, 2021, British Columbia became the first province to officially appeal to the federal government for the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use. Ontario is expected to make a similar appeal. This is not a new idea, since the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland have already made this move. In Brazil, educational institutes and community services have replaced prison sentences for those found guilty of drug possession and personal use, but drug trafficking is still strictly forbidden. Should society have strict and inflexible laws that punish those who have substance dependence or strive to look for effective means to help them rehabilitate? There are plenty of reasons that support the decriminalization of drugs, such as the elimination of the stigma that isolates drug users even further and prevents them from seeking help; the collapse of organized crime groups; and the accumulation of revenue, which can be redirected toward educating the public about the dangers of drugs.

With legalization, the act becomes completely acceptable in the eyes of the law. With decriminalization, on the other hand, the act will no longer be regarded as a criminal act, while still subject to certain limitations. In the case of drugs, the recreational use of drugs is an important element in legalization, not decriminalization. On October 17, 2018, Canada became the second country in the world (after Uruguay) to legalize recreational cannabis. The main objective of decriminalizing drugs in Canada, however, would be to combat the surge in overdose deaths. So, how would this work? Decriminalization would mean exemption from criminal penalties for drug users who possess less than 4.5 grams of illicit drugs. However, possessing more than this amount, drug trafficking, and manufacturing illicit drugs would still be illegal. It becomes clear, then, that this is not at all like the legalization of cannabis.

Firstly, decriminalization would alleviate the stigma and humiliation surrounding drug use, which would encourage people with drug use disorders to ask for help. According to the government of BC, there were 1,534 overdoses between January and September 2021—this is up by 24% compared to the previous year. As Sheila Malcolmson, British Columbia’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, observed: “Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone. Through provincewide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving support, and treatment.”

Furthermore, decriminalization would cause organized crime in society to collapse. According to the American Sociological Review, the US prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s led to organized crime tripling in Chicago—proving that bans are not effective. On the other hand, if drugs were decriminalized, drug dependents would have access to safe products instead of toxic ones from the black market. This would again cut down the number of overdoses across the country and significantly reduce the rates of crimes and gang violence related to drugs. Before legalization, there were 26,402 arrests involving cannabis across the country. In 2019, there were only 46. Moreover, before cannabis was legalized, people from marginalized communities across Canada, such as indigenous and black Canadians, were arrested more. Since the legalization of cannabis, there have been fewer racialized arrests. As a result, police would have more time and resources to crack down on other crimes, prisons would no longer be overcrowded, and court systems would be unclogged.

Finally, the revenue amassed through decriminalization can be spent on educating all citizens about the harms of drugs and discourage them from going into the drug market. The legalization of cannabis created thousands of new job opportunities. More than 1,000 cannabis stores sprung up. Cashiers are needed to sell cannabis in retail stores, workers are needed to manufacture cannabis, and delivery workers are needed to deliver online orders. Another advantage is for there to be an improvement in the educational curriculum. Students in high schools would learn about the hazards of drugs. If this were to happen, it would positively affect all of the Canadian population. Project SUCCESS is an organization in the US that provides many substance abuse prevention and early intervention services to high schoolers. After one year, an evaluation showed that there was a 37% drop in substance abuse in students. These numbers show that educating youth is an efficient way of preventing and reducing substance use.

There are, however, the more conservative-minded critics who oppose this change and mainly argue that the decriminalization of drugs would only increase drug use and addiction in society, particularly among the youth. From a psychological standpoint, when society outlaws a product, there will always be some people who will desire it even more. Consequently, the ban forces those people to acquire it illegally. A case in point is what occurred throughout the United States in the 1920s after the federal government ratified the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919, prohibiting alcohol. As a result, alcohol consumption levels did drop, but they did not stay low in the long term. Organized crime and the sale of alcohol on the black market spiked. Thus, even history demonstrates that decriminalization is the right path forward.

All in all, it is high time that the government displayed a more sympathetic approach towards victims of drug addiction. Addictive disorders must be treated as health issues, not criminal ones. Decriminalizing drugs has many benefits, including mitigating the stigma to help drug users, crippling organized crime, and profit for the government. According to the Vancouver Sun, from January 2020 to July 2021, there were 1,800 deaths from Covid-19 in BC. Compare that to the 3,000 who died from overdoses in the same time period, which is almost double! Keep in mind that this is an issue that has been going on for more than a decade, all over Canada. Unfortunately, there has not been anything done for drug users that is even comparable to the $62.8 billion in economic relief given out by the federal government in the wake of Covid-19. This is simply unacceptable.

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