Pressure mounts on Liberals to decriminalize drug use and simple possession

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Courtesy of Lift Magazine

At its policy convention last week, the NDP made a formal commitment to decriminalize possession of all drugs, not just cannabis, to combat the opioid epidemic at its policy convention in late February. Now, Liberal MPs are asking members of the party to communicate their support of the same initiative.

Between now and March 18, registered Liberals can vote online to prioritize the Liberal caucus’s drug policy resolution. If the idea makes the top 30 of 39 resolutions, it will be included in debates at the party’s April convention in Halifax.

“I believe that we should treat drug use and abuse as a health issue, and not as a crime. We know that prohibition policies – the so-called “war on drugs” – has been an abject failure,” wrote Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith in an email. “We need evidence-based solutions instead. To that end, other countries have had success with more progressive drug policies.”

The Portuguese government decriminalized low-level possession of all drugs in 2001. Instead, medical experts, social workers and legal professionals work together to create treatment plans, issue fines or assign community service duties to those possessing drugs. Since that time, overdoses and drug-related deaths decreased from 131 in 2001 to 20 in 2008, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has increased by 60 per cent.

In Canada, 7000 opioid-related deaths have been reported in the last two years.

“We have expanded safe injection sites, and are working to expand treatment options, but we need to continue to follow the evidence if we want to save lives,” Erskine-Smith says.

Recreational cannabis legalization should be viewed as separate from the proposal to decriminalize all drugs, says Erskine-Smith. But many have wondered if more access to cannabis could help – or hinder – efforts to treat opioid addiction.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research approved approximately $100,000 in funding for McMaster University’s Dr. Zainab Samaan to research the impact of cannabis legalization on cannabis use and outcomes in patients with opioid use disorder. In a previous study, Samaan and colleague Laura Zielinski studied the impact of cannabis use on the outcome of methadone treatment, the most widely used treatment for opioid addiction.

Samaan and Zielinski’s results showed that, for women in particular, cannabis use could hinder the efficacy of methadone treatment.

“This is the largest study to date examining the association between cannabis use and illicit opioid use,” they write. “Cannabis use may be a sex-specific predictor of poor response to methadone treatment (MMT), such that women are more likely to use illicit opioids if they also use cannabis during treatment. Women may show improved treatment outcomes if cannabis use is addressed during MMT.”

Another study, published in spring of 2017, found that 63 per cent of a sample of medical cannabis consumers registered with Tilray perceive cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs – “particularly opioids (30 per cent), benzodiazepines (16 per cent), and antidepressants (12 per cent). Patients also reported substituting cannabis for alcohol

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