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Drug Decriminalization and Harm Reduction: Rethinking Drug Use in our Communities

What is Drug Decriminalization?

Substance use is ever prevalent in society, so what are some ways that we can reduce the risks and consequences of drug use? The terms drug decriminalization and harm reduction are starting to show up a lot in the media, but what does this all mean?

Drug decriminalization is the reduction or elimination of criminal penalties for possession and use of drugs. This means that the drugs are still illegal, however criminal convictions are replaced with civil penalties. This practice is often paired with harm reduction strategies, which aim to reduce the negative consequences of drug use on individuals and communities. This can take place in many forms that you may be familiar with, such as safe injection sites or education programs for safe consumption.

Successes of Decriminalization:

In many countries, drug use has been largely governed by strict policies that stigmatizes drug use with criminal records and jail time. However, the criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs is often ineffective - failing to address the root health issues at play, and placing people at high risk of continued substance abuse.

Decriminalization is a more upstream method that seeks to reduce harm and promote a culture where people who use drugs are supported, rather than isolated. Portugal was the first country in the world to decriminalize drugs, and their 20 year system was effective in reducing diseases like HIV and Hepatitis, as well as criminal penalties for substance use. The program provides high-risk communities with sterile equipment and mental health support to prevent further harm and promote recovery. People who were caught with drugs were also not jailed, but instead sent to a support centre to educate them about safe substance use and aid their recovery. Overall, the Portuguese decriminalization system was very effective in de-stigmatizing substance use, creating a culture in which those struggling with substance use feel greater support in receiving help.

Pictured: The Portuguese Government assembled outreach organizations where social workers and healthcare workers promote safe substance use through the distribution of sanitary tools, de-stigmatizing drug use ( )

Canada is also dealing with significant substance use problems as the opioid crisis continues to shock our nation. On January 31, 2023, British Columbia will be the first Canadian province to test the decriminalization of drugs; the new policies will allow users that are of legal age to carry a small amount of previously-illegal drugs like ecstasy, cocaine, and others. The purpose of the decriminalization experiment is to reduce the stigma with drug use so people have less difficulty reaching out for help and accessing treatment.

Integrating Harm Reduction into your Life:

Substance use of any kind comes with some risk, which makes it important to think about the short and long-term effects on your wellness as a student. While abstaining from using any substances is the safest option, if you choose to use drugs, you can develop a plan to minimize possible harm. If you intend to use drugs, consider the following tips:

If the ideas of drug decriminalization presented in this article were interesting to you, many resources are available to learn more, including documentaries, podcasts, websites, and academic papers - just be sure that your sources are evidence-based! You can also consider adopting these ideas into your day-to-day life, whether that be simply showing more compassion for people who use drugs, openly talking about substance use issues with friends and family, or even advocating for the adoption of drug decriminalization in your own community.

Thanks for reading! We hope that you learned a few things that can help build a healthier substance use culture in the Queen’s community!


  1. What does the decriminalization of drugs mean? . Landmark Recovery . (2021, March 30). Retrieved December 28, 2022, from

  2. What is harm reduction? Harm Reduction International. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2022, from

  3. Ferreira, S. (2017, December 5). Portugal's radical drugs policy is working. why hasn't the world copied it? The Guardian. Retrieved January 12, 2023, from

  4. Bajekal, N. (2018, August 1). Want to win the War on Drugs? Portugal might have the answer. Time. Retrieved January 12, 2023, from

  5. Bains, C. (2023). B.C. poised for Drug Decriminalization Experiment | vancouver sun. Vancouver Sun. Retrieved January 12, 2023, from

  6. Hello Cool World. (2023). Safer Sex & Safer Drug Use.


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