Why decriminalize drugs?

By Sean LeBlanc, Drug Users Advocacy League

Why we should decriminalize drugs Why we should decriminalize drugs

I am a straight, white Canadian male whom obviously is in a position of privilege, so how could one like me ever be discriminated against? Because of drug use, that is why…

Every time I have ever been in trouble with the law, it has been because I use drugs. My drug use has not negatively affected anyone but myself, perhaps, but time and time again I have been punished—thrown in a cage repeatedly because of what I chose to put in my body. And nary a single trip in said cage has ever helped me in anyway, nor has it helped our community and country. It has cost me a lot, including losing everything I owned twice because of incarceration. I have lost countless places to live, jobs, dignity, and most tragically, friends because of the criminalization of people who use drugs (PWUD). 

It has also cost our communities countless dollars that were simply wasted in courts, probation offices and the like, and for what? Has it reduced drug use, overdoses, or the dangers that drug users face everyday? I can confidently say “no,” and it has actually increased the dangers PWUD face because being criminalized has just pushed us to the margins of society where the whole criminalization circle begins anew: do a drug, get arrested, get out of jail eventually with conditions and no belongings, live in a shelter surrounded by PWUD and try, somehow, to start all over again with nothing—absolutely nothing. Repeat.

I only was able to conquer my demons and change my drug use when a judge actually listened to me and gave me a complete discharge on my drug-related charges as I told her I would not be back if she granted me a discharge. And I was able to keep that promise. I stopped doing dangerous drugs in a dangerous fashion the first time my drug use was treated as a means to cope, a health issue—and was being treated as such—rather than a crime. Of course, being as privileged as I am helped. I can only empathize with the stigma and discrimination BIPOC or LGBTQ+ people face on a daily basis—and for what? Some means of control? How this makes sense in a progressive country as ours is beyond me.

“I stopped doing dangerous drugs in a dangerous fashion the first time my drug use was treated as a means to cope, a health issue—and was being treated as such—rather than a crime.”

For over a hundred years, Canada has decided that it’s best to punish people for using drugs rather than offering them assistance, and all this has done is make the problem worse. For example, I live in our capital, Ottawa. Every year we have an awareness day for overdose prevention; and despite many amazing services, our local overdoses increase yearly. In 2012, Ottawa had, I believe, around 30 fatal overdoses. Since that time, we have added great initiatives like four supervised injection sites, a well distributed naloxone program, and now safer supply; so of course with such great community programs, the number of fatal overdoses has reduced, right? Wrong.

This past year (2020), we had over 120 fatal overdoses. 120 beautiful people are no longer here because those in places of power have continued to decide what we need rather than actually actively listening to us for what we need. 26,000 (twenty-six thousand) dead Canadians from overdose since 2015. And for what? Our community has been traumatized so much, and how many more people need to die before we act?

Photos of people in a scrapbook
Scrapbook honouring the lives and memories of people who have died of overdose

I have a scrapbook where, when I can, I add the faces of those we have lost. Well, my book is full both literally and figuratively. I feel like a war veteran with the dozens upon dozens of good friends we have lost (I use “we” because we all lose when someone dies needlessly—so much potential never realized because of draconian laws initially based, and still enforced, on racism, classism, and personal prejudices that run afoul of the evidence). This has gone on for over a hundred years, and for what? Has drug use decreased even a bit? Are fewer people dying or being harmed? Is there a way to do things better?

Memorial during International Overdose Awareness Day; Ottawa

There is, and it starts with decriminalization. I have been advocating for PWUD for almost 15 years, and not one single PWUD has ever told me that being criminalized because of what they consume has helped them. And this discrimination we face does not stop at the justice system: we have been treated like trash at many a hospital, school, community centre, and the like. Again I ask, what for?

We need a Canada where drug use is treated like the health issue it is. We need a Canada that stands up for those historically pushed to the margins of society. We need a Canada that lives by its ethos as a progressive nation based on the observance of human rights. We need a Canada that cares for those who need caring for, a Canada where one is not dismissed and stigmatized simply because they use one type of drug. We need a Canada where decriminalization of drugs is the law of the land!

The family, friends, loved ones, children, etc…  we have lost—needlessly lost—because some of their actions are criminalized deserve no less. And we need Canada to be a leader in making this happen NOW.

About Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

Advocating for public health- and human rights-based drug policies grounded in evidence, social justice, and compassion. www.drugpolicy.ca