Limits to drug decriminalization may make matters worse: advocates

As Canada’s death toll rises from a toxic drug supply, advocates say it’s ‘unconscionable’ that the federal government has yet to make a decision on demands to decriminalize drug possession. drugs in some parts of the country.

Not only is the delay worrying, but there is also a growing fear that the government’s final decision will not help to alleviate the crisis, but will only worsen it.

Health Canada is currently evaluating exemption requests from Vancouver, the BC government and Toronto to decriminalize drug possession in those jurisdictions. Vancouver submitted its application nearly a year ago, while Toronto submitted its application in January. Edmonton City Council also decided last month that it would seek an exemption.

“I think that’s unconscionable,” Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said of the delay, noting the amount of work that has already gone into the three waiver applications submitted.

“How many times do I have to say this? We are in the midst of the worst addiction crisis the country has ever seen, and decriminalization is seen as one of the valuable tools we could use to help people reduce their risk of death.

More than 5,300 opioid-related deaths were recorded in Canada between January and September 2021, according to the latest federal data, mainly in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

Modeling projections released in December by the Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that up to 4,000 Canadians could die from overdoses in the first half of this year.

Advocates have long called for decriminalization as a necessary tool to address Canada’s toxic drug supply crisis, in which drugs are contaminated with strong opioids like fentanyl.

One of the main concerns for them and people who use drugs is that Health Canada may only want to decriminalize a small portion of drugs per person. They argue that a low threshold is based on police requests and not drug use patterns, and say it will be ineffective and even dangerous for people who use drugs.

This fear intensified last month when British Columbia revealed that Health Canada was considering a threshold of 2.5 grams per person as part of the province’s exemption request, raising concerns that a threshold low is also taxed in Toronto and other jurisdictions requesting an exemption. (Health Canada’s decisions on the applications are not yet final.)

“It’s called the iron law of prohibition – the harder you suppress, the more focused things become,” said Petra Schulz, co-founder of advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm.

Schulz’s youngest son, Danny, died in 2014 of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 25.

“Our fear is that with a lower threshold there will be more concentrated substances,” she said, “and we know that whenever there is a higher concentration, there is a rate higher number of drug poisoning deaths.

Toronto’s request to Health Canada does not propose specific thresholds and echoes concerns about drug potency if the legal amount is set too low. British Columbia proposed a cumulative total of 4.5 grams of the drug per person, while Vancouver requested a different maximum amount depending on the type of drug.

Toronto Public Health told the Star it wants to work with people who use drugs, experts and police to “develop a definition of personal possession that reflects the unique needs of our city.”

A member of the working group advising TPH on thresholds for its application said the group recommends specific thresholds.

“Working group members repeatedly and consistently called for the Toronto exemption not to impose a threshold,” said Sandra Ka Hon Chu, member of the group and co-executive director of the HIV Legal Network. “We think they are unnecessary.”

She called “tragically inadequate” the fact that even if these exemption requests are approved, it will create a patchwork system across the country where possession will be decriminalized in some jurisdictions but not others.

“And those exemptions themselves might be inadequate,” she said, adding that imposing low thresholds will also contribute to over-policing and over-incarceration of black, indigenous and marginalized people.

More than 20 organizations, including the HIV Legal Network and groups representing people who use drugs, wrote to federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett in April saying there is no has “no legal basis of evidence” for a 2.5 gram threshold.

“A 2.5 gram threshold runs counter to your government’s commitment to evidence-based drug policy, anti-racism and reconciliation with Indigenous communities,” the letter said.

“This sets a dangerous precedent for other municipalities across Canada seeking an exemption.”

Health Canada told the Star it would not comment on applications under review.

“I always ask the police this threshold question – because they’re the ones who want low thresholds – and I’m like, ‘Who do you want to arrest? said Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, who was involved in the Vancouver and British Columbia waiver applications.

“They will say the big fish, the people at the top, but I will say the people at the top don’t fiddle with grams. This is the wrong unit of measurement.

While declaring that drug use should be treated as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue, the Liberal government has repeatedly refused to budge on decriminalization for the entire country. Cabinet ministers highlighted the exemption requests under consideration when asked about the government’s position.

The government’s Bill C-5, which is currently making its way through the House of Commons, would require police and prosecutors to use their discretion to keep drug possession cases out of court, but does not lead to any consequence if they don’t, and it would leave possession offenses on the books.

A private member’s bill, C-216, by NDP MP Gord Johns would repeal possession offenses in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, but it’s unclear if the Liberals will provide the support needed to send it to committee for study when it is finished. for a vote around June 1.

“The fact that Johns’ bill changes the CDSA, that’s a good idea, that’s where the root of all this bull—t is,” Mullins said.

“We don’t just need an exemption, we need to change this law. It is the source code for drug prohibition in Canada.

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