On drugs decriminalization and safe injection sites

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Canada validated the existence of safe injection sites for drugs after years of stalling from the federal government. It didn’t take much time for the Quebec minister of Health to jump on the bandwagon and announce that he would be favorable to using public funds to allow these safe injection sites.

I have to admit that I am skeptical, quite skeptical in fact, of such a decision. I have already argued the case here in a french article to the Prince Arthur Herald. Why am I skeptical? Well, here are the facts about safe injection sites

  • They do reduce the frequency of death by overdose, however the number of lives saved barely inches about 1 life per year according to different reports (one by the EMCDDA in Europe and one by Health Canada);
  • They do reduce the absolute number of notifications of AIDS and HIV, yet could a larger reduction be obtained by other means; and
  • They do allow intervention in order to get addicts off drugs;
But all these results are minimal relative to the operating costs. This leads me to the question that policy makers ought to ask themselves, why not just decriminalize. To decriminalize drugs would mean to transfer the possession and consumption of drugs for personal uses from the realm of criminal accusations to that of administrative sanctions. In short, you would pay a fine like you would for a parking violation rather than going to prison.

Portugal has gone in that direction in 2001 and even though it has hard to obtain statistics pre-2001, the evidence available suggests that in Portugal;

So, there seems to be a cheap policy alternative if one wishes to reduce the adverse effects of drug consumption and that policy is decriminalization. In fact, it liberates resources by reducing the crowding in the justice system and reduces workload for police forces. Now, a simple analysis of risk management indicates that the costs of saving a live (through reducing overdoses and HIV/AIDS) under the policy of subsidizing safe injection sites might be larger than those of saving a life under decriminalization. In fact, the benefits of decriminalization may also outweigh those of subsidizing safe injection sites. Considering the limited resources of Quebec’s government which already taxes above Canadian average and has a considerable problem with regards to spending controls, such an allocation of government funds would be inefficient.

If the provincial government really wishes to reduce the frequency of drug abuses and the accompanying health hazards, the best policy would be to start lobbying the federal government to abandon its war on drugs and move towards decriminalization.