‘Substance use is a disease’: KFL&A Public Health calls for decriminalization of drugs

‘There’d be more capacity for services [at Queen’s] if the harm reduction services were enhanced’

The proposed decriminalization model emphasizes destigmatization and treatment.

This article discusses drug use and describes experiences of losing a loved one to drug use. If you are seeking support, please call 1-866-531-2600 or use the online chat feature to connect with a specialist. The Journal uses the term “user” when describing the individual using drugs. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

As the Canadian drug poisoning crisis continues to escalate, a division of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox, and Addington (KFL&A) Public Health wants reform.

The KFL&A Public Health Community Drug Strategy Advisory Committee (CDSAC) has called for the decriminalization of substance use. The CDSAC’s petition has passed the 500-signature threshold required for parliamentary consideration.

The petition also calls upon the Government of Canada to appoint a standing committee dedicated to combatting the overdose crisis.

KFL&A Public Health’s proposed reform model treats substance use as a medical condition, placing emphasis on expanding treatment services while reducing stigma.

“We've continued to see opioid related deaths climb since 2015, and there's really no sign of it slowing down,” Christine Riddick, public health promoter at KFL&A Public Health, said in an interview with The Journal.

Over just 13 days in April, KFL&A Public Health reported seven suspected drug poisoning deaths.

The criminalization of drug use is not effective, Riddick said.

“People who experience addiction are going to do what they need to do to get the relief they need, and criminal charges don't deter that,” she said.

Nor would decriminalization encourage people to begin using drugs, she added.

The four pillars of the CDSAC’s approach include preventing use, reducing harm from unregulated use, rehabilitating users, and enforcing laws against illicit drug distribution.

Andrea Keller, member of the CDSAC, lost her son, Tyler, to an overdose in 2017 after he took drugs unknowingly laced with fentanyl.

Now, she advocates for access to harm reduction and rehabilitation programs with a group called Moms Stop The Harm.

“Most of [the rehabilitation programs] are not funded, and the funded ones have such long waitlists that people are dying waiting to get in,” Keller told The Journal in an interview.

The distribution of illicit drugs would remain illegal under the CDSAC’s model. Both Riddick and Keller stressed that decriminalizing use is not the same as legalizing distribution.

The CDSAC will consider safe supply as a possible harm reduction strategy to reduce the dangers of unregulated drugs—such as the ones that claimed the life of Keller’s son.

Funds currently used for the incarceration of drug convicts would be reallocated to finance these proposed services.

The CDSAC’s approach would reduce stigma through their decriminalization and treatment plans. The CDSAC believes people suffering from addiction must be considered victims of a disease, not perpetrators of a crime, to destigmatize drug use and treatment.

“Substance use is a disease, and we need to start treating it like that. To put people in jail because they have a small amount of substance on them […] shows them we're not respecting what's going on, we're treating them differently than other people that have medical issues,” Keller said.

There is also a tendency in society to blame the victim, she added.

“‘It was their fault. They shouldn't have taken drugs in the first place,’” Keller said.

According to Riddick, not only does stigma caused by criminalization erect “a barrier to people seeking help,” but it presents further difficulty for recovering users in their journey to social reintegration.

“Receiving criminal charges for drug use […] does have a lot of implications for people entering the workforce and getting housing,” Riddick said.

Employers can request a criminal background check as part of their onboarding process, and landlords before signing a lease.

Post-secondary campuses teem with young people seeking careers and housing. Drugs are also commonplace.

Riddick warned people might be using other drugs contaminated with opioids on campuses.

In the past, Queen’s University has worked with KFL&A Public Health to provide naloxone training sessions. Naloxone, which temporarily blocks the effects of opioids, is used as an emergency overdose remedy.

“There’d be more capacity for services [at Queen’s] if the harm reduction services were enhanced,” Riddick said.

She added it would be the University’s responsibility to ensure they're being responsive to the drug poisoning crisis.

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