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Nishan Duraiappah is chief of the Peel Regional Police Service. Dale McFee is chief of the Edmonton Police Service.

In the face of the appalling rise of opioid deaths across Canada, the debate over how to reverse this tragic trend has become increasingly polemical and divisive. We need to find solutions that break this deadlock. Despite the rhetoric on all sides, there are no simple or guaranteed solutions. Perhaps the only reality on which we all agree is that the status quo is unacceptable. Deaths are rising, vulnerable people are suffering and organized crime’s influence in some of our largest cities is growing.

Last week, the federal government and British Columbia took the first step in a new effort to mitigate harm by decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of certain “hard” drugs. But an effective and sustainable path forward won’t be made possible unless we establish both the necessary support networks and the broader access to treatment required to help people struggling with addiction.

As police leaders, we and our teams are among those at the front lines of Canada’s struggle with opioids, methamphetamines and other potentially lethal drugs. Experts from every profession challenged by these issues – public health, community housing, education, the medical profession and police – all agree that no path to decriminalization can deliver real change without the support of better treatment, housing and counselling options for those trapped in the cycle of addiction.

Addiction is a health issue, but without a system of care in place, decriminalization alone offers little prospect of reducing the number of people dying from lethal drugs. Here we see addiction at the centre of a web of policy failures: from the unequal treatment of racialized and Indigenous people in Canada, to our inability to develop and maintain an adequate level of affordable housing, to the constrained capacities of our treatment and counselling systems in too many places.

British Columbia is the first province to obtain a federal exemption permitting the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. This three-year pilot-program approach to limited decriminalization, accompanied by a commitment to real-time data gathering and analysis, should enable a better understanding of whether the policy is working or not. It is crucial that we have a sound base of evidence upon which informed decisions can be made concerning any expansion of federal exemptions to other jurisdictions.

Two decades ago, Portugal introduced one of the most extensive drug-law reforms of our time by decriminalizing the possession of illicit substances. With the police still involved at the front end of its process, its approach offers a number of insights into what can be achieved through well-considered intervention and a more integrated perspective. For one, it approaches personal drug use within a public-health context – not as a criminal matter. Furthermore, Portugal focuses less on decriminalization as the main remedy for problematic substance use, and instead relies on a range of measures aimed at removing barriers to, and enhancing opportunities for, social inclusion, access to support resources and improved health outcomes.

Portugal has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over 20 years to develop the support systems essential to the successful implementation of its drug policy. But we must remember what Portugal always underlines to policy-makers from other countries when discussing their approach: They are still learning and adapting, and they are still a long way from victory.

An effective path forward for Canada’s drug laws should reflect reconciliation, social justice and consultation with the communities affected most by drug laws. This pathway should also be informed by emerging research and should involve a continuum of recovery-focused services where the person in need is at the centre of the model.

While decriminalization of small possession is now being tested in British Columbia, the evidence is clear – decriminalization alone is insufficient. It must be accompanied by a critical focus on the full range of health and social elements we have discussed. We have much work to do to address community, activist and political anxieties; we are a long way from having a broad consensus that addiction is, first and foremost, a health issue; and we must address legitimate concerns about community safety.

The status quo cannot be allowed to prevail – it places too many lives in peril. But a new direction must be taken carefully, and then tested and analyzed with a transparent approach to public communication on successes and lessons learned.

We cannot remain paralyzed, but neither can we afford to fail in our attempts to blaze a new trail. If two decades from now we can look back on a country transformed as fundamentally as Portugal has been, we will be justifiably proud – but it will take a similar level of commitment, a whole-of-system investment and transparency to get there. There are no single solutions.

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