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Globe editorial: To solve the opioid crisis, stick to harm reduction

Canada's opioid epidemic shows no signs of abating, and a sense of urgency is clearly gripping law enforcement.

In recent months, police have begun laying manslaughter charges against drug dealers for allegedly selling fatal doses of fentanyl and other dangerous synthetic opiates.

It's happened in Alberta and Ontario, and is forecast to become more common. The prosecutions are a signal that Crown attorneys and police see the need to act purposefully in the face of a crisis that will cost more than 3,000 lives this year.

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But while the impulse is understandable, it doesn't equate to being the best response.

Stiff trafficking penalties already exist and clearly aren't working – an outcome supported by research. One summary of the findings by experts at the University of Toronto in 2014 concluded that "crime is not deterred, generally, by harsher sentences."

In contrast, harm-reduction strategies such as legalization, opiate substitution (or prescription) and supervised injection have proven their effectiveness in places like Portugal and Switzerland.

British Columbia, ground zero for Canada's opiate explosion, takes a similar approach. It notably does not routinely pursue manslaughter charges.

Then there's the murky notion of assigning criminal responsibility. A 1993 Supreme Court ruling established a test: "objective foreseeability of the risk of bodily harm which is neither trivial nor transitory, in the context of a dangerous act."

That case upheld a conviction for directly administering a fatal cocaine injection with the deceased's consent. How far might the concept stretch?

In Ontario, apparently to providing fentanyl to someone who knowingly and specifically sought it out, and later died.

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The decision to illegally purchase and then ingest a dangerous drug is an individual one, but the logic here seems to be that the sellers know fentanyl can kill and are thus also responsible.

Why stop there? Why not apply it to manufacturers or importers of fentanyl's precursor chemicals? How about doctors who were cavalier with their prescription pads and contributed to the country's opioid crisis?

A criminal crackdown might appeal to some, but it is a distraction. The only option with a real chance of saving lives is for Ottawa and the provinces to treat the crisis as a public-health matter, and focus all their best resources on harm reduction.

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