There are growing calls for drug decriminalization. Could it solve Canada’s opioid crisis?


There are growing calls across Canada to decriminalize the possession and use of illicit drugs as the country grapples with an opioid overdose crisis that has killed thousands of Canadians.

Last week, British Columbia became the first province to officially request the federal government for an exemption from criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. This came after Vancouver submitted its own proposal to Health Canada in June.

Meanwhile, Toronto is also preparing to make a similar plea later this year. In June, Ontario’s big city mayors proposed new approaches to the mental health and addictions crises in their cities, including decriminalization of drugs.

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As the pressure from different jurisdictions mounts on the federal government, advocates say Canada needs a coordinated national drug possession policy that is designed to tackle opioid overdose mortalities.

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“It’s good that B.C. is taking this step, but in the long term, it doesn’t make sense that one province has different approaches, different drug laws than another province,” said Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

“We would prefer the federal government take the bull by the horns … and put in place a well-researched, thoughtful decriminalization model so that there is an equity of enforcement and opportunity across the country.”

Under Section 56 (1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, an exemption can be granted by the minister of justice and attorney general of Canada if it is deemed necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.

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There is growing consensus among public health and policy experts that criminal penalties for drug possession can be “extremely harmful,” as they stigmatize drug users and reduce their likelihood of accessing health services.

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MacPherson called it an “unjust policy.”

“Drug prohibition has been one of the most punitive, cruel, crushing policy frameworks ever developed in this country, and it still exists today,” he said.

Andrew Hathaway, a professor of sociology at the University of Guelph, said there are many benefits to decriminalization that need to be considered.

Reducing or removing the penalties can encourage drug users to be more up front with public health professionals, making them more likely to seek treatment, he said.

It can also help save law enforcement dollars and redirect that money towards education and other social interventions that can protect and promote the health of drug users and their families.

“It’s a good idea to institute this at a larger level,” Hathaway said.

“I think to have some level of coordination and have it enacted on a federal scale certainly makes sense,” he added.

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Where do provinces stand?

The criminalization of controlled substances and illicit drugs falls under federal jurisdiction.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far rejected wholesale decriminalization of simple drug possession and consumption. However, his government has taken incremental steps toward treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

In the Liberal platform for the 2021 federal election, the party pledged to reintroduce within 100 days a bill that would repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences and some gun-related crimes.

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B.C. formally asks Ottawa for exemption to decriminalize illicit drug possession

To date, B.C. is the only province to have formally asked Ottawa for an exemption from criminal penalties for illicit drug possession.

In a statement to Global News, Health Canada said it will carefully review the request and continue to work with provincial officials on options that address their needs.

In its review, the agency said it would take into account evidence of potential benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians.

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Other provinces are keeping a close eye on how that review pans out.

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Saskatchewan said it was awaiting the federal government’s decision, but had not submitted its own request for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

“Addictions issues are a public health matter and are not well-suited to be managed by the criminal justice system, however Saskatchewan would expect additional support from the federal government to treat people with addictions if decriminalization were to proceed,” Margherita Vittorelli, spokesperson for Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice and Attorney General, told Global News in an emailed statement.

Prince Edward Island said it will be “following this matter as it evolves.”

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Yukon also said it will “continue to monitor developments,” while acknowledging that it was a matter of federal jurisdiction.

“We continue to take a harm reduction approach here in the Yukon and recently established the North’s first supervised consumption site and expanded the safe supply program,” said Julie Ménard, a spokesperson for the territory’s health and social services.

At this time, Newfoundland and Labrador was not considering exemption requests from criminal penalties, the Department of Justice and Public Safety told Global News.

In Manitoba, the Department of Mental Health Wellness and Recovery, which was created in January 2021, is consulting Manitobans to develop an integrated, whole of government five-year action plan road map, according to a spokesperson.

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Opioid overdose crisis

In Canada, fatal opioid overdoses have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. A September report from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) found that on average, around 20 people died of opioid overdose per day across Canada in 2021.

Between April 2020 to March 2021, a total of 6,946 apparent opioid toxicity deaths were reported across the country — an 88-per cent jump from the same time period prior to the pandemic.

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B.C. reported the highest-ever drug deaths in the first seven months of a year in 2021: 1,204, surpassing last year’s record by 28 per cent. Drug toxicity is now the province’s leading cause of death for those aged 19-39, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

In Ontario, opioid-related deaths rose by more than 75 per cent after COVID-19 hit in 2020, compared to the year before, a report by Ontario Drug Policy Research Network showed.

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Meanwhile, in New Brunswick, which avoided the worst of the pandemic, there were four times more overdose deaths than COVID-related deaths in 2020.

The surge in such deaths is mainly attributed to an increase in social isolation, using drugs alone, and closed international borders.

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Experts say decriminalization of drug possession can help tackle the overdose opioid crisis, but it’s not enough and additional measures are needed.

Substance users should be given healthier alternatives to the toxic drug market, MacPherson said.

“We need to look at safe supply programs that are emerging to accompany a move towards decriminalization,” MacPherson said.

Daniel Werb, director of the Center on Drug Policy Evaluation at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said Canada’s highest priority should be to regulate its drug market.

“Decriminalization is not going to directly influence overdose mortality,” he said. “The way to directly reduce overdose mortality is by regulating the drug supply.”

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How will a national policy work?

In its Nov. 1 application to Health Canada, B.C. asked to decriminalize personal possession of up to 4.5 grams of illicit drugs, including heroin and fentanyl.

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If the federal government grants the request, British Columbians caught with less than 4.5 grams would be provided with information around accessing addiction and health services. Police would not seize drugs from them.

For a national drug possession policy to be effective, it should involve working with people on the ground and fully engaging with those who use substances and live the so-called criminalized life to minimize their risks, said MacPherson.

“We need to really think through the details of the policy so it covers the maximum number of people in the country at any one time and allows room for different levels of purchasing substances and different levels of use,” he said.

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Policing practices and threshold limits are other issues to consider to ensure inequities are not amplified by drug policies, said Werb.

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“It’s about maximizing the benefits of this policy change by making sure that there aren’t other factors or other policing patterns that come into play that essentially make it the status quo for some people who use drugs,” he said.

— with files from the Global News’ Richard Zussman, Leslie Young and The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.