Opioid-based medications have led to more than 11,500 deaths between 2016 and 2018, according to the Public Health Agency. CNS photo/Bryan Woolston, Reuters

Cathy Majtenyi: There is nothing ‘safe’ about supply of drugs

  • September 26, 2019

It’s been called a “national health crisis” and a “public emergency.” It’s a major issue in next month’s federal election.

More than 11,500 apparent opioid-related deaths occurred from 2016 to 2018 across the country, said the Public Health Agency in a June report. The situation is so serious that Statistics Canada says average life expectancy has stopped increasing — for the first time in four decades — “largely attributable to the opioid crisis.” 

Experts, politicians, community organizations and many others have been weighing in over the years with their analysis and proposed solutions on how to deal with the worsening crisis. First, there were “safe injection sites,” locations established for people to inject illegal recreational drugs using clean needles and other sterile equipment. One such facility in Alberta is among the most heavily used of its kind worldwide. 

Now there is talk of creating a “safe supply” of drugs.

The Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs describes safe supply in its February 2019 report as being “a legal and regulated supply of drugs with mind/body altering properties that traditionally have been accessible only through the illicit drug market.” 

The idea is that if heroin, cocaine, LSD, crystal methamphetamine and other street drugs are legalized, regulated and distributed free of charge, users wouldn’t have to go to the illicit market, where substances such as fentanyl could be mixed into the drugs, often with fatal results. 

There’s a very good reason why street drugs are illegal: they’re extremely dangerous. “Safe supply” may initially prevent some deaths from overdoses, infections and poisoning by ensuring they are free of harmful substances, but it’s unclear how this will prevent or mitigate the devastating effects of taking harmful drugs, even if the supply is “safe.”

Yet, “safe supply” is gaining a disturbingly high amount of publicity and serious consideration as a viable solution to the opioid crisis.

It’s Part 2 of the legalization of cannabis, which happened last year despite the findings of a government-commissioned research study that showed associations between cannabis use and impaired driving, increased risk of stroke and testicular cancer, brain changes connected with memory and learning loss, mental illnesses involving psychosis, among other harms.

The study issued a warning: “These results should be viewed with concern by physicians and policy-makers given the prevalence of use, the persistent reporting of a lack of recognition of marijuana as a possibly harmful substance and the emerging context of legalization for recreational use.” Eleven months may be too early to assess the situation; it could take a few years for us to see the study’s warnings.

The potential legalization of street drugs — and the actual legalization of cannabis — is motivated by a very dangerous falsehood: People will use drugs anyway, so let’s make it legal and safe for them to do so. 

Society has a responsibility to protect people from taking actions that harm themselves and, inevitably, those around them. Just because those who consume street drugs actively choose self-harm on their own bodies doesn’t mean we should wash our hands clean of their fate. 

Legalizing and supplying free drugs sends out the message that society supports the use of these drugs and, in fact, inadvertently encourages continued drug dependency. This may send out an inadvertent green light to those who might want to experiment with drugs but who don’t do so precisely because these substances are illegal. 

There’s no guarantee that users won’t turn to the black market when they need a greater kick. Gripping testimonies from former users refer to using drugs more frequently and in larger amounts to achieve the same high they experienced in the beginning. 

Let’s use the money that would purchase street drugs to instead create treatment and support programs to wean people off drugs. Let’s address the root causes of drug addiction and put resources into prevention. 

Let’s provide, as a recent Policy Options article advocates, “meaningful therapy” that leads our fellow human beings into a better life.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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