Decriminalizing drugs about destigmatizing dependency: Experts

Compassionate approach could help alleviate opioid crisis

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Growing calls to decriminalize all drugs in Canada would not have a detrimental effect on the workplace, according to experts.

Boards of health in Toronto and Montreal recently made such recommendations, largely in response to the opioid overdose crisis affecting jurisdictions across Canada — and the 303 opioid-related deaths in Toronto last year, said Eileen de Villa, medical officer of health in Toronto.

“I appreciate that the federal government is focused on cannabis legislation right now,” she said. “My hope is that as some cannabis legislation is actually implemented… they will then be able to turn their mind to the broader questions.”

“What we’re advocating for in public health is what I would characterize as a more compassionate approach to drug policy, and a more compassionate perspective on those who take drugs and who are afflicted with substance use disorder.”

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died from apparent opioid overdose last year, according to Health Canada.

Despite the proposals, the federal government said it is not considering the measure at this time.

Shifting mindsets

Decriminalization is different from legalization, said Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc, chair of the Toronto board of health.

“By putting it in a public health framework, you’re not saying that it’s a good activity,” he said. “You’re saying that it’s an activity that you understand people will undertake, but it’s not the kind of activity that requires a police response, but a public health response.”

“We are a drug-dependent society,” said Mihevc. “We have taken — for the last 50 years, at least — a criminal justice approach to the issue. That’s what needs rethinking... This is really the big fork in the road that we have to decide as a society.”

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) is not opposed to the decriminalization proposals, said Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist at CCOHS in Hamilton, Ont.

“I think there’s some validity to looking at it from a different angle,” she said. “We always take the ‘what’s best for prevention’ approach.”

Employers have an obligation to ensure workplaces are safe, but can do so in a way that removes stigmas, said Chappel.

“When you think of it as dealing with it as an impairment issue, you don’t need to know the cause. You just need to know that they’re impaired, they’re not doing their job safely for whatever reason.”

“It would be a mindshift change… Once you start removing the stigma and people know that it’s OK to go to their counsellor and they can go to the clinic, they can go to their drug treatment sessions, you’re probably (going to) find employers might have to accommodate those medical appointments.”

“That’s breaking down barriers, right there.”

Employers are already supporting workers through accommodation policies, said Mihevc.

“The proposition there is exactly what we’re talking about here,” he said. “The supervisor does not call the police, but calls in human resources, specialists, gets treatment for that person… It basically destigmatizes dependency.”

Advice for employers

A more compassionate and supportive approach by employers could mean an immediate boost to the battle against a growing opioid crisis, said de Villa.

“(Drug users) are often using the medication to manage very challenging circumstances in their lives,” she said. “Having a compassionate approach and trying to facilitate the ability for people to actually connect to important resources and support, whether it’s a very robust employee assistance program or just being a good listener… I wouldn’t underestimate the value of that support.”

“There are many people in our community that actually have really suffered significant trauma in their lives, and what’s interesting is that our current approach that criminalizes drug use just further exacerbates that trauma.”

The upcoming legalization of cannabis will also prove valuable in an employer context in the effort to manage and minimize harms caused by drug abuse, said de Villa.

“We have successfully found ways to make sure that people are still afforded the opportunity and ability to provide value within the context of a workplace, while also ensuring that the workplace is safe — both for that individual and for those who are around them,” she said.

Regardless of legal or illegal classification, all drugs have the potential to cause harm, said de Villa, noting even prescribed medicines can impact cognition in the workplace.

“Oftentimes, members of the public forget that alcohol, too, is a drug which is legalized and strongly regulated,” she said.

“We have an opportunity to learn from how we have managed these issues with respect to other drugs that are out there.”


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