Some Canadian cities and provinces are trying to criminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs in their jurisdiction as thousands of people die of overdose each year.
As of January 2016, about 25,000 people have died of opioid-related causes, according to the Canadian Public Health Agency, which compiled data from all provinces except Quebec.
As the crisis of opioid-related overdoses and death rages in Canada, advocates have long argued that decriminalization will help reduce the stigma associated with drug use and save lives.
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But despite calls for criminalization from within the Liberal Caucus, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the 2021 federal election that it was not something his government wanted to bring.
Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the judiciary can request a waiver from the federal government to allow people to have small amounts of substances such as cocaine, heroin and fentanyl.
Vancouver officially wanted it in May 2021.
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In November 2021, British Columbia became the first province to make its own request. Toronto followed in January.
Sheila Malcomson, BC’s minister for mental health and addiction, said the province was taking a number of steps to “save lives in the toxic drug crisis”.
“The number of people who are losing their lives for the supply of toxic drugs while using drugs alone, we need all the evidence that stigma and shame are taking people’s lives,” Malcolmson said.
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A recent report by the BC Coroner Service showed that between January 2019 and January 2022, more than half of all illegal drug poisoning deaths occurred at home.
Malcomson said stigma prevents people from getting help with addiction and shame forces many to hide their addiction and use drugs alone. That means they risk dying alone.
“Addiction is not a criminal justice problem. It is a health-care problem,” Malcolmson said.
Corona reports that 2,224 people died of suspected overdose in BC in 2021, the highest in a single year. This is 26 percent more than in 2020.
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Malcolmson said multiple approaches would be needed to respond to the overdose crisis.
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“It simply came to our notice then. It alone will not save lives, “he said.
“But if we have health care that can go back to people, they don’t feel ashamed or stigmatized about drug use. They are willing to talk to their primary health care provider, “which can help people get treatment or advise on safe delivery.
“It’s a link between criminalization and other things we’re doing.”
Dr. Aileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer for health, said he sees the city’s request as a change in approach to drug policy.
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“The reality is that an attitude that focuses or involves criminalization, in fact, leads to stigma and discrimination, which actually makes the situation on the ground worse,” de Villa said.
Those who use drugs can put people at risk of harm when they try to access harm reduction services, employment and housing, de Villa said.
Mary Claire is the managing director of the Vancouver City Management Policy, and she led the city’s evacuation request.
He said half of the drugs seized by city police at the moment were carrying less than the number Vancouver wants to enforce.
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Upon request, its recommended threshold for opioids would be two grams, three grams of cocaine, one gram of crack cocaine and 1.5 grams of amphetamine.
Anyone found below this limit will not be charged and no drug will be confiscated unless there is evidence of other offenses such as trafficking.
“Those who confiscate their drugs, those who are addicted to drugs, have to go out and find more drugs,” Zack said.
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“And it could cause them to make a desperate purchase from a dealer or a source unknown to them and put them at high risk.”
Health Canada has not yet decided on a waiver request and says it will not comment on applications under review.
A spokesman said in a statement on Friday that the government recognized the judiciary in various ways and that agencies were working with its partners to find “innovative solutions”.
“It’s a process that takes some time,” de Villa said.
“My idea from Health Canada staff is that they are helping as much as possible,” Zack said. “They tell us things are still in play and in progress and they’re having a conversation.”
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Malcolmson said his staff is also having an active conversation with Health Canada about the BC application.
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“It’s definitely something we’re urgently calling for,” Malcolmson said.
“It’s not just a flick of the light switch.”
Ending the opioid crisis is complex, but Jack said criminalization is something that the government can help quickly.
“Secure supplies are crucial. And it is going to take a long time, unless the minister has the magic wand to change the stigma in the health system, the stigma in the regulatory bodies, ”he said.
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