Some Canadian cities are considering decriminalizing drugs to reduce the number of overdose deaths amid the opioid crisis, but a U of G drug policy expert says that may not be enough. 

Dr. Andy Hathaway is a professor in the criminal justice and public policy program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology within the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences. He studies drug use in marginalized and mainstream populations and its implications for social policy development. 

Dr. Andy Hathaway
Dr. Andy Hathaway

He said that an evidence-based societal response requires an integrated public health and social justice approach, rather than relying only on the “legal remedy” of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs.  

Canadian drug policy is hampered by its continued commitment to “an inconsistent hybridized approach” and an ongoing “reluctance to commit to full decriminalization,” said Hathaway.  

The federal government has “not gone so far as to adopt the concern for social justice that would be suggested by decriminalizing drugs.” 

By comparison, there are mixed results with the state of Oregon’s decriminalization strategy introduced in 2020, which are “an indication of America’s reluctance to invest in social programs that promote public health,” he said, contrasting Oregon’s approach to that of Portugal.  

Hathaway said Portugal has been more successful in enacting decriminalization with concern for public health. Recognizing substance abuse as primarily a health issue, Portugal sends drug users to dissuasion commissions where they are assessed for disorders, and can receive treatment, pay imposed fines or perform community service instead of being incarcerated.  

While decriminalizing drugs is a necessary measure, according to Hathaway, the opioid crisis “should be a wake-up call to governments at all levels to adopt a more logically consistent and coherent public health approach to drugs.” 

Hathaway is available for interviews. 

Dr. Andy Hathaway