Canada on Tuesday proposed to police and courts to treat illicit drug use as a health problem, but failed to comply with British Columbia’s demand to decriminalize possession of small amounts for personal use.
Justice Minister David Lametti unveiled legislation that would overturn 20 mandatory minimum sentences, including for petty drug offenses which the government says disproportionately impact Indigenous and black offenders.
The bill, yet to be passed by parliament, also requires “police and prosecutors to consider referring people to treatment programs or other support services” for simple possession offenses, noting that criminal sanctions can increase the stigma associated with drug use.
Drug addiction has claimed thousands of lives in British Columbia. Its Minister of Addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, told AFP that the province is facing “an overdose crisis which is causing terrible loss of life”.
The pandemic has worsened its impacts, she said, as more people “use drugs alone and often die alone”.
“This tells us that people hide their addiction from family and friends and don’t talk to their primary health care provider about treatment options,” she said.
In Ottawa, her federal counterpart Carolyn Bennett is still studying the demand for decriminalization, her office said.
But in an interview with public broadcaster CBC after a visit to drug treatment sites in Vancouver, Bennett said decriminalization in British Columbia could provide “a very good model” for the rest of Canada.
Lametti said at a press conference that his bill “can help people with drug addiction get the treatment they need and avoid falling into a cycle of crime.”
– ‘A step towards reality’ –
Six British Columbians are estimated to die each day from opioid-related drug poisoning, and an estimated 8,000 have died since the province’s chief public health officer, Bonnie Henry, declared the situation a health emergency. public in 2016.
From January to July, 1,200 people died of overdoses, a 28% increase from the same time last year, according to the British Columbia Coroners Service.
In addition to increasing treatment and recovery services, British Columbia has asked Health Canada for an exemption to allow people 19 years of age or older to legally transport up to 4.5 grams of drugs such as heroin. , fentanyl, methamphetamine, crack and cocaine without risking arrest.
“While the illicit drug poisoning crisis affects everyone, people with substance use disorders – a recognized disability – are being disproportionately affected,” the request says.
“All levels of government therefore have an obligation to minimize the risks of mortality and morbidity in their policies and not to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities.”
If the measure is approved, people caught with less than this amount would be told how to access local health and social services.
Most Canadians think this is a step in the right direction, according to an Angus Reid poll released last February which found that 59% of Canadians support the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs, a figure that climbs to 66% in British Columbia.
“It’s good that they are finally doing something,” Dave LeBlanc, a 35-year-old Métis who waits in the rain outside Canada’s first supervised injection site in Vancouver, told AFP to shoot the heroine he bought on the street.
“But that’s not really going to be enough.”
Garth Mullins, a journalist and former heroin user who helped shape the province’s submission through his advocacy work, explained that “some people have very heavy (drug) habits.”
He said the proposal was “a step towards reality”, but he would also like to see safe supplies of drugs prescribed for drug addicts who now have to rely on street drugs of unknown provenance and may commit property crimes to prevent them. pay them.
Jacqueline Cousley, an opioid user and volunteer with the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver, agrees.
“It would be great if they legalized it entirely so people don’t have to worry about what kind of (toxic substance) is in it,” she said.
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