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Groups decry ‘punitive,’ ‘coercive’ drug policies in worsening overdose crisis

A coalition of eight advocacy groups is decrying Canada’s “devastating” drug policy that advocates say is doing more harm than good in the country’s fight against the illicit drug overdose crisis.

A coalition of eight advocacy groups is decrying Canada’s “devastating” drug policy that advocates say is doing more harm than good in the country’s fight against the illicit drug overdose crisis.

The groups sent a co-written letter to three federal ministers on Monday, criticizing the country’s drug policy as “punitive” and “coercive” and urging Ottawa to “issue a public statement denouncing all forms” of involuntary care aimed at drug users across Canada.

Corey Ranger, president of co-authoring group Harm Reduction Nurses Association, said while programs such as mandatory treatment of overdose patients infringe on individual rights, there is an equal amount of concern over how effective they are in the first place.

“The reality is that involuntary care, punitive approaches, simply do not work,” said Ranger, who has treated many drug users. “And that is one of the most important factors to consider when implementing public policy: Is it effective? Does it serve the purpose? And the answer is that it does not.”

Instead, Ranger said, mandatory treatment fractures people’s relationship with health care providers, leading to distrust and isolation when individuals need to seek support and care.

Those who are treated, he said, may have had their tolerance artificially lowered in the process — leading to more cases of relapse and subsequent overdose.

The letter said illicit, unregulated drug supply is killing 20 Canadians a day on average.

The co-authoring organizations, which also include the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs and the HIV Legal Network, decided to release the letter on Monday because it coincides with the international “Support, Don’t Punish” day historically used by government agencies to showcase achievements in drug control.

Ranger said the idea was to “shift the narrative” and reclaim the day for advocates of harm-reduction and other non-punitive policies such as safe supply.

Ranger said such advocacy efforts had been hampered in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides urging the federal government to make a declaration against involuntary care, the groups are also asking officials to meet with concerned stakeholders — including drug users themselves — and front-line care workers.

The letter also asks for the repeal of “punitive” laws that criminalize drug users.

Beeta Senedjani of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition — another co-author of the letter — said she has seen increased criticism of non-punitive drug policies like support programs and safe supply

She said she views such critiques as “scapegoating” and governments need to step up funding support for housing, front-line harm-reduction workers and food security to address the root causes of social issues critics are linking to drug use.

“What we really need to be doing is investing in things that people need to support their lives,” she said. “This is the result of decades and decades of underinvestment in this area… and the current approach does not work.”

In British Columbia, data from the coroners’ service earlier this month said the province’s death toll for illicit drug overdoses has surpassed 1,000 just five months into 2023.

In addition to the eight co-authoring groups, 79 domestic and international organizations have also endorsed the letter addressed to Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, Attorney General David Lametti and Mental Health Minister Carolyn Bennett.