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Decriminalization: Ottawa will have to monitor what is happening in British Columbia

OTTAWA — Last month, British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to make changes to ensure drug users will no longer be arrested or charged for carrying up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs. , starting next year.

It is the first jurisdiction in the nation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in an effort to stem the growing tide of drug-related deaths. Since January 2016, nearly 27,000 Canadians have died of opioid-related causes, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Solving the opioid crisis by decriminalizing access to opioids may seem counterintuitive.

But many experts involved in substance use research over the past few decades have come to the conclusion, over the past 20 to 30 years, that using criminal sanctions to deter people from using certain substances doesn’t work. just not.

“In addition to being ineffective, it is also clear that criminal penalties for the use of certain substances have produced a series of unintended negative consequences,” said Michael John (MJ) Milloy, researcher at the British Columbia Center on Substance Use .

These range from an increased risk of a fatal overdose to a reduced likelihood that a person will seek treatment for drug addiction, he added.

The harms of criminalization and incarceration fall most heavily and inequitably on people who are racialized, poor, and living with multiple mental health issues, Milloy said, and that’s why people have sought alternatives.

“Decriminalization is not legalization; it doesn’t mean the drugs are legal,” said Garth Mullins, member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

On the contrary, decriminalization means that drug dealers would still be subject to arrest, but the police will not arrest someone for possession and consumption of small amounts of drugs.

Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, said it’s important to note the context in which drug use has become criminalized.

“It’s part and parcel of our culture, that drugs are bad,” Mr. Culbert said.

He says deep-rooted negative stereotypes about people who use drugs include the belief that they “just don’t have that moral character to pick themselves up and overcome anything, or that they’re just lazy “.

The reality is that people who have faced obstacles that have left them with physical or emotional pain may not have the proper tools to deal with them in other ways. They then turn to substances to numb their pain, Culbert said.

Drug use and criminalization affect First Nations people in a special way, said Carol Hopkins, executive director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation.

First Nations people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and the reasons they are incarcerated may be linked to colonization and racism in Canada, said Ms. Hopkins, who also served as co-chair of the Health Canada addiction experts.

“Drug use is a way of coping with unresolved trauma,” she said.

While harm reduction services are becoming available in urban areas, similar services are underfunded or inaccessible in First Nations communities.

Treating those who use drugs as “criminals” ignores that they may not have access to the things that ensure a good quality of life and further stigmatizes people because of their life experiences.

She called it inhumane for First Nations people to end up in prison for substance use, when it is often a way of coping with experiences such as residential schools, the effects of the welfare system childhood or social problems such as lack of access to drinking water.

Conservative MP Brad Vis, who represents the riding of Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon in British Columbia, recently told reporters that decriminalization was part of the federal Liberal government’s “soft on crime” approach.

“British Columbia is in an opioid crisis,” he said. We see no commitment from this government to provide appropriate care, culturally appropriate care for Canadians and British Columbians who suffer from addictions. We are at the epicenter of substance abuse issues in Canada.”

Mr Mullins disagrees that this approach will not work, pointing out that “we have tried to fight crime for 100 years” and that prison itself is a traumatic experience which can lead to a increase in drug use.

“There’s no evidence to show that it does anything to help keep people safe, or to stop them from doing drugs or anything like that. More punishments only make things worse,” he said.

But Mr. Mullins agrees that British Columbia has not come up with a solution that fully tackles the problem.

“We said there should be decriminalization and safe supply,” he said.

A regulated and safe supply of opioids aims to ensure that people are not dependent on the supply of unregulated and highly toxic drugs on the street.

Although BC’s approved possession limits are criticized by those who believe they go too far, many defensemen feel they don’t go far enough.

Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, told MPs on the House Health Committee last week that the government could not extend decriminalization beyond British Columbia before it could ensure that there will be no “unintended consequences for public safety”, such as gangs and organized crime.

“The government said, ‘We have to be very careful about this. And it’s true,” Ms. Hopkins said.

“We have to be careful how we structure drug policy in Canada, but as long as we are careful, we cannot afford to let fear rule.”

This article was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta Fellowships and The Canadian Press for News.

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