Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not commit to decriminalizing the simple possession of drugs, despite mounting pressure to do so in order to address the country’s overdose crisis.
In an open letter to Trudeau issued Monday, B.C. Premier John Horgan said criminal prohibitions are ineffective at deterring drug use and stigmatize people who use drugs. B.C., the epicentre of the opioid crisis in Canada, has seen two straight months of record overdose deaths.
Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use would be “an enormous step to reduce the systemic stigma associated with illicit drugs and support people to access the services they need to stay safe and to start their path to recovery,” Horgan said.
VICE News reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office about its stance on decriminalization. In response, Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office sent a statement outlining measures the government has already taken, including increased access to supervised consumption sites, access to pharmaceutical grade drugs as replacement therapy, and funding for drug treatment courts. The statement did not commit to any form of decriminalization or suggest that the government is considering decriminalization as an option.
Horgan’s letter comes after B.C. broke two consecutive records for fatal overdoses in May and June with 171 and 175 deaths respectively. More than 5,000 have died since the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency in the province in 2016, and at least 720 people have died in B.C. due to fatal overdoses this year alone.
Many of those deaths are linked to fentanyl, which has permeated the drug supply. In July, Toronto Public Health issued an alert stating that opioid-overdose deaths have increased during the pandemic.
In July, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released a report stating its support for decriminalization of simple possession of drugs.
“Arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs is ineffective. It does not save lives,” said Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer, the head of the organization.
Trudeau has repeatedly balked at decriminalization. During a VICE town hall in 2016, he was confronted by harm reduction worker Zoë Dodd for not doing enough to address the opioid crisis. Trudeau responded that he was not ready to decriminalize drugs.
In an email to VICE News, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erksine-Smith said the federal government should take action on decriminalization.
“We should immediately issue an exemption under the (Controlled Drugs and Substances Act) for the Province of B.C., as Premier Horgan has clearly stated his support and requested urgent action. We should similarly issue exemptions and respect other local requests, including a request from Toronto Board of Public Health,” he said.
Gillian Kolla, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, University of Victoria, said while Horgan’s letter is “significant” it’s also a red herring, because B.C. could implement de facto decriminalization by amending provincial policing policy.
“At a certain point when you have so many public health, medical, public safety actors coming together saying the same thing it becomes ridiculous for our elected officials to not ask, particularly when we’re seeing rising overdose numbers across the country,” Kolla said.
Kelly White, coordinator of Toronto’s Street Heath Overdose Prevention Site, said prohibition criminalizes people who are poor, vulnerable, and often racialized.
“It is the prohibition of drugs that both spawns an extremely lucrative illicit market, and locks people into a perpetual cycle of prison and the streets,” she said. “It is universally accepted by public health researchers and people on the front lines of this crisis that only the legalization and regulation of drugs will dry up the illicit market and allow communities to focus on preventing substance use and addiction.”
Kolla said decriminalization is an important first step in reducing barriers for drug consumers seeking social services. However, she said the government needs to quickly scale up the availability of safe, legal drugs to divert people from the poisoned drug supply in the illicit market.
In June, B.C.-based drug user activists told VICE News the government needs to give people access to safe drugs that they use, including cocaine and injectable heroin. The activists handed out samples of cocaine and opium that had been tested for fentanyl to demonstrate how safe supply should work.
Experts have said the pandemic is likely making things worse, because of issues with the drug supply at the borders, as well as more people using drugs by themselves.
“2020 is going to be an absolutely devastating year for overdose deaths in Canada,” said Kolla.