Much like in the United States, Canada has seen a spike in the rates of opiate use among its populace.
In order to respond to what Canadian officials see as a growing threat, Health Canada launched new proposals in May to “allow doctors to prescribe heroin to some opioid addicts who do not respond to treatments such as methadone.”
On September 8, Canada enacted these new rules as a response to the country’s “opioid overdose crisis.” But despite the changes, drug war laws remain mostly in place, meaning the only change regulators made was to the health code, allowing healthcare providers to prescribe the substance only to individuals who have an addiction problem. Also, these prescriptions may only happen “under a special-access program in cases where traditional treatment has failed.”
To users who are not considered addicts, however, heroin access remains restricted.
ABC News explains further:
“In the [Canadian] pilot program users must be a long time heroin user, who has tried at least twice to stop using drugs. The drug users are allowed to come to the clinic between two to three times a day where they are provided a syringe and drugs for injection. Medical staff on site monitor the drug users and can intervene if they show signs of overdose.”
Instead of legalizing heroin use and commerce, what the Canadian government has attempted to do is approach the overdose issue as the number one health threat, allowing doctors to handle individuals who are on the brink of a deadly episode due to potential abuse of heroin.
According to Daniel Raymond, the policy director for Harm Reduction New York, the Canadian approach “is not so much the Marie Antoniette-style let them have heroin.” Instead, he said, new rules should be seen as “an extension of medicine-based rehab programs.”
Despite the limited access that comes with the new policy, Raymond contends Canada’s decision to embrace “harm reduction” policies shows people are finally learning that “asking drug users to quit drugs isn’t always a feasible goal.” Much like what has already been tried in Europe and Vancouver, this new policy simply hopes to keep the rates of heroin abuse low, which is what happened in Switzerland. Still, it’s far from full legalization or decriminalization of drug commerce.
In “How Legal, Branded Heroin Would Make Drugs Safer,” Chris Calton writes that freeing the drug market means producers will have to compete by providing good products.
Branding, he explains, is what makes any product safe.
When choices are abundant, “goods are remarkably heterogeneous.” And as customers become aware of the differences, they begin to demand more choices. That’s why when we go to the grocery store to buy anything, we have a variety of choices. We can purchase affordable items, which are often associated with big brand names, or we can pick organic, reduced sugar, grain-free, vegan, and other products from smaller brands.
“Economically,” Calton explains, “name brands serve an important function. … [in a free market], brand names ‘are a way of economizing on scarce knowledge and forcing producers to compete in quality as well as price’.”
If you know and trust the Heinz brand, for instance, but you’re not acquainted with Great Value, you are more likely to pick Heinz. But if all you want is something affordable, Great Value will do just fine. Consumers, Calton adds, “have to weigh the cost benefit of a cheaper brand against the risk of getting an inferior product; with the brand name product, the quality is more certain.”
In a free drug market that is not plagued by the violence inherent to a black market — which is created by illegality of a substance or product — consumers have more open access to knowledge, despite the shortcomings that may come with it, such as major brand names using deceptive tricks to tweak labels here and there. In any case, when the markets are freer, consumers are better informed. But “[w]hen goods are made illegal, smugglers will continue to trade them, but the ability to establish brand consistency is suppressed.”
For a black market brand to become safe and well-known, Calton explains, “[i]t would require a producer to survive the illicit trade long enough to establish this reputation, a means of conveying the information in the absence of open and legitimate advertisement, and some enforcement mechanism for distributors to prevent the alteration of the product.”
In an environment where drug producers and salespeople are constantly afraid of being caught by the police or by a competitor, the cost of advertising and producing such well-branded products is simply too high — and that’s why addicts are often the ones who get hurt.
While the new health policy will help countless heroin addicts, the goal must be analyzed closely. Legislators both in Canada and the United States should ask themselves if what they want is to end addiction or restore safety. Either goal necessitates a more humane approach to the drug policy — one that does not involve prohibition.