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Drug Policy and Harm Reduction

In Canada and other countries, illegal drug use and addiction are treated largely as criminal law concerns, rather than as public health issues.

Overreliance on criminal law and its enforcement undermines public health programs that have proven effective at improving the health of people who use drugs and reducing the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. A criminal law focus inevitably leads to human rights abuses:

  • Significant resources are spent on ineffective law enforcement — money that would be better spent on harm reduction measures, such as needle exchange and opiate substitution therapy programs, supervised injection facilities (see "Related Links," right), and addiction treatment services for people who use drugs.
  • The illegality of the drug market means that there are no controls or standards for drugs — they are of unknown strength and composition, which may result in overdoses or other harms to people who use drugs.
  • The fear of criminal sanctions may drive people who use drugs away from health or social services.
  • The criminal law has a chilling effect on the provision of health and social services, such as education and needle exchange programs, to people who use drugs.
  • Police undermine the important health role of needle exchanges, safer crack kit distribution and supervised injection facilities by using these programs to identify people who use drugs.
  • Drug paraphernalia laws and other criminal measures may force drug users to share needles and other equipment, which contributes to the spread of infectious diseases.

We work to ensure that drug-related laws, policies and law enforcement do not compromise the health and human rights of people who use drugs or increase their vulnerability to HIV infection.

Learn more:

Related Links
Vancouver opened Insite, a supervised safer injecting facility, in September 2003. Within the facility, people inject pre-obtained illicit drugs under the supervision of medical staff.

The program was granted a legal exemption by the Canadian government on the condition that a 3-year scientific evaluation of its impacts be conducted. This review, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), summarizes the findings from evaluations in those 3 years.
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The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network is a non-governmental organization in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
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