Solving the Problem of Drug Overdose Deaths


During the past year, drug overdose deaths in Canada have skyrocketed. Preliminary numbers show that 5233 Canadians died of opioid-related toxicity in 2020, the deadliest year since national tracking began.

It is a curious fact that as substance abuse increases in Canada, the response has inevitably been to facilitate easier access to drugs for the addict. Examples of such policies include:

  • Increasing Drug Consumption Sites

These sites have been greatly expanded across Canada under the Trudeau government. It is the addicts without money, who are homeless or marginalized, and lack support, who are shuffled off to these sites, where they inject themselves repeatedly with street drugs. As a result, their addiction continues and leads to further degradation and usually, a difficult death.

Supporters of these sites claim that they provide opportunities for the addict to seek treatment. This is not so.  The priority for such facilities is not treatment, but to serve as “safe” places to inject drugs. Drug addicts are not in a position to admit to their drug problem in these facilities since the addicts’ only objective is to feed their addiction.

Also, one might question the motivation of the workers at these sites to prioritize treatment when they rely on a continuous supply of addicts to maintain their funding from federal and provincial governments: life-long addiction ensures a continued source of income for them.

  • Substitute Drugs For Addicts

The government has increased access for addicts to receive substitute opioids, such as methadone, hydromorphone, and Dilaudid. Although they help patients with their withdrawal symptoms and cravings without getting high, the addict still remains addicted to an opioid for life and there is still a risk of death by overdose using methadone. The treatment merely creates another opioid problem and a never-ending maintenance treatment. It is noted that Sweden experienced an increase in drug-related deaths when it expanded its substitution drug therapy.[1]

  • Drug Vending Machines

Free drug vending machines, to dispense the opioid medicinal grade drug, hydromorphone, have been installed in four Canadian cities – two in Vancouver and one each in Victoria, B.C., London, Ontario, and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  The drug provided at these vending sites serves as a substitute for heroin. According to the Federal Health Ministry, these vending machines allow “participants to access a safer drug without fear, shame and stigma and without contact with anyone, which is all the more essential during the pandemic.”

To provide addicts with easier access to a drug by way of vending machines only continues the addicts’ desperate, unrelenting problem of addiction.

Current Response to Increased Substance Abuse

The approach to the current increase in drug overdose deaths proposed by public health officials and policymakers is to decriminalize drug possession of small amounts for personal use. They base this on the argument that prohibitions are ineffective in that they don’t deter addicts’ drug use, and also, prevent people from seeking help because of the stigma involved.

Illegality is Not the Problem

The reality is that the problem of drug overdose is not caused by its illegality. Many of the deaths are from opioids which are legally produced, prescribed, and distributed. Moreover, changing the legal status of drugs doesn’t address the underlying cause of drug abuse.  That is, the problem of drug addiction is not caused by the addiction, but rather by other factors, such as mental health, loneliness, homelessness, family instability, poverty, etc. The demand for decriminalization of drugs overshadows these real needs.

In short, the decriminalization of drugs is not a medical cure for drug addiction as evidenced by Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001.  The latest figures from Portugal indicate that, 20 years later, it has the same drug overdose mortality rate as it had before decriminalization.

Purpose of Prohibition of Drugs

Legislation that prohibits drug use has a regulating or deterrent effect, as the penalties impact on attitudes toward drug use, especially among youth.  Moreover, penalties allow for law enforcement to redirect addicts for treatment and other support services.
Activists pushing for the decriminalization of drugs validate their demand by referring to the July 2020 report by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), which recommended the repeal of criminalization for possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. These advocates, however, never mention the complete recommendation of the police chiefs, which was that decriminalization must not occur until treatment facilities are established with capacity to accommodate individuals diverted through police contact. The police’s recommendation was also premised on the requirement that there be increased mental and physical health care as well as social services and support in regard to family instability, educational dysfunction, and poverty, before decriminalization is implemented.

Decriminalization of Drugs Increases Use

The undisputed fact is that decriminalization increases both the number of people using drugs and the number of drug traffickers operating in communities. Decriminalization benefits the black market as it leaves underground sales intact and in operation. Also, decriminalization makes it difficult for police to detect and apprehend traffickers who can easily avoid arrest by only carrying the limit allowed for private possession of drugs.

A review of drug-related deaths in 11 European countries has found that drug deaths were not reduced by decriminalization.  Only when extensive support services are made available to the addict did deaths decrease.

Current Policies Are Not Working

It is clear that the above policies dealing with drug overdose deaths are not working and are not solving the problem. This is evidenced by the escalating number of drug-induced deaths each day across the country.

It’s time to rethink the drug issue in Canada by taking a fresh look at the problem and developing new approaches to deal with it.

The Real Solution to Drug Overdose Deaths

The real solution to drug addiction is to remove the addict from drugs completely.  What is needed is a drug recovery system for addicts. Abstinence-based treatment works well when followed by long term supported recovery.

The important point is to eliminate the causes of drug addiction by way of treatment (voluntary or involuntary) and support services for addicts.

More and better treatment, more resources for prevention, and, therefore, tougher measures against the illicit sale of drugs is the effective response to drug abuse. In this regard, the province of Quebec has provided a program entitled the Court of Quebec Addiction Treatment Program (CQATP), which gives the courts the ability to suspend sentencing until the addicted offender undergoes court supervised treatment for his or her addiction. The program also enables closer cooperation between the courts and addiction resources to establish courses of treatment, including therapy, rehabilitation and social reintegration.

Drug courts established in other provinces have also proved successful in assisting addicts to obtain recovery. One of the key factors contributing to the success of court ordered drug treatment is the continuous monitoring of the addicts by the court system to support them in their goal of abstinence.

The primary object of an effective drug policy is to help the addict, not provide him/her with easier access to drugs. Policies that permit continued access to drugs by addicts, including the proposed decriminalization of drugs used for personal use, will only lead to more deaths by drug overdose.


[1] Andersson, Pierre. “Decriminalization of Drugs: What Can We Learn from Portugal?” Translated: The Business Translator/Prologic GmbH. Swedish Drug Policy Centre. 2020. Page 24.