Decriminalization won't solve 'drug poisoning crisis,' workers say. So what will?

·4 min read
Emily Wadden, left, manages the Safe Works Access Program (SWAP), a needle distribution and overdose education program based in St. John’s and Corner Brook. Jane Henderson, right, is a harm reduction consultant with Eastern Health. (CBC - image credit)
Emily Wadden, left, manages the Safe Works Access Program (SWAP), a needle distribution and overdose education program based in St. John’s and Corner Brook. Jane Henderson, right, is a harm reduction consultant with Eastern Health. (CBC - image credit)
CBC
CBC

Newfoundland and Labrador harm reduction workers say drug decriminalization is a step in the right direction, but wouldn't be enough to stop a worsening "drug poisoning crisis."

Emily Wadden manages the Safe Works Access Program (SWAP), a needle distribution and overdose education program based in St. John's and Corner Brook. She said the biggest problem facing drug users is an unsafe drug supply — but that doesn't mean she isn't in favour of decriminalization.

"It's definitely still something we'd like to see here because any step in the right direction definitely can't hurt,"  Wadden said in a recent interview. "While it's not necessarily going to stem overdoses, it can stem, you know, arrests and harassment and the challenges that go along with having a criminal record."

Wadden said it's difficult to quantify overdoses in Newfoundland and Labrador, but the problem seems to be getting worse — she said she knows of at least two people who have died of an overdose in the past two weeks.

"It's almost, I would say, at crisis level," she said.

According to the federal government's Public Health Infobase, there was a 95 per cent increase in Canadian overdose deaths related to opioids alone from April 2020 to March 2021 compared with the same period before the pandemic, and deaths since then have remained high.

At the end of May, the federal government announced adults in B.C. would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs, including opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine beginning in 2023. The federal government made the decision in response to a request from the B.C. government. Vancouver and Toronto Public Health have made similar requests.

Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett has said the Liberal government is open to speaking with other provinces and municipalities that may want to decriminalize possession, and would consider "local realities."

CBC News asked the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Justice and Public Safety if the provincial government is considering decriminalization.

"We continue to work with our federal, provincial and territorial counterparts in examining all options for solutions related to the issue of drugs," said a department spokesperson in a one-line statement.

Decreasing stigma

Though Wadden said she'd like to see decriminalization in this province, it wouldn't solve the problem of a toxic drug supply.

"Until a big step is kind of taken to address that, you know, we're going to be seeing … continuous, you know, increases in overdoses and overdose deaths," Wadden said.

David Gunn/CBC
David Gunn/CBC

Jane Henderson, provincial harm reduction consultant with the Opioid Dependence Treatment Center of Excellence, said it's time to take a public health approach to substance use and overdoses — which she agrees is a crisis.

"I think the knee-jerk reaction is to say, you know, drugs are bad, let's criminalize drugs," she said. "If that worked… we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Henderson says decriminalization will help substance users avoid getting a criminal record for personal possession, and may also decrease stigma associated with substance use.

"It's a tiny step away from the punitive way that we've treated substance users," she said.

Reducing harm

Both Wadden and Henderson pointed to a safe drug supply as a main solution to toxic drug deaths.

Henderson said there's "zero evidence" that harm-reduction measures like safe supply encourage drug use — according to her, it does the opposite.

"What we do have evidence on is how harm reduction measures can actually increase the lives of people who are using drugs," she said.

Henderson is also the manager of the provincial take-home naloxone program. Naloxone temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Henderson said she's seeing a greater demand for the kits, which are free and can be obtained by calling 811.

She's said it's essential that people who use substances or have lived experiences help make decisions about harm reduction measures.

"What we've been doing so far is simply has not worked. And we've wasted a whole lot of money on it. And we know better now," she said.

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