Canadians consider decriminalizing most illicit drugs

Four years after the nationwide legalization of marijuana use, political momentum is building in Canada to decriminalize most other illicit drugs.

Negotiations with the federal Department of Health are progressing on a request from the Province of British Columbia for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The exemption would legalize possession of up to 4.5 grams of opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Similar requests are being considered by the city board of health in Hamilton, Ontario, and the board of police commissioners in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. A bill introduced by a member of the left-leaning New Democratic Party is expected to be discussed in federal Parliament this year.

City councilors in Edmonton, Alta., voted unanimously to seek such an exemption just hours before a visit to the city by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month.

Trudeau “extremely worried”

“The reality is that here in Alberta we have seen far too much tragedy around the opioid epidemic,” Trudeau reportedly said during his visit. “I had a great conversation with the mayor [Amarjeet] Sohi on this last night when I got to town, and I can tell you that he and all of us are extremely concerned about what Albertans are going through with the opioid epidemic.”

While pausing before approving the requested exemption, Trudeau was quoted by the CTV television network as saying that his government “will welcome their request when it comes in. … We are already working with the government of Colombia. Briton on a similar issue, and we’re going to make sure we’re grounded in science, grounded in supporting people.”

The opioid crisis, which has swept across Canada as well as the United States, is the main factor behind the decision to legalize illicit drugs. A federal government study published last month reported a 95% increase in apparent deaths related to opioid toxicity in the 12 months ending March 2021 compared to the previous 12 months.

Nearly 23,000 Canadians have died from opioid toxicity between January 2016 and March 2021.

“A good way to think about it is that the illicit drug supply in Canada is unpredictable and dangerous. High potency drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil are rampant in the drug supply,” said Jordan Westfall, co-founder of the Canadian Association for Safe Supply. , one of the leading drug advocacy organizations.

“A safe supply offers people at risk of overdose an alternative to this danger and risk of overdose,” he said in an interview. “A person never has to worry that their next sip of store-bought alcohol might kill them. People who buy illicit drugs on the street don’t have that protection, which provides them with a safe supply.”

The approach is consistent with long-standing policies in Canada, where “harm reduction” has often been favored over outright prohibition. Canadian jurisdictions are much more likely than their American counterparts to promote policies such as safe injection sites and needle exchanges. Canada is one of six countries to have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

But the latest initiative is not without criticism.

Shaun Wright, superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Prince George, B.C., was quoted on a local website as saying he believes the provincial request, if approved, “will only escalate these problems. of social disorder exponentially, is my opinion. And I think the way it’s being offered is a terrible idea. “

Wright added: “I believe it’s 4½ grams of fentanyl, that’s what’s been proposed that anyone can walk around with, and that’s enough to kill a lot of people, so I don’t know. why would any government suggest it’s a good idea.”

Threshold of 4.5 grams too high?

Syd Lecky, the RCMP superintendent in Kamloops, another B.C. city, told city council late last month that he supported decriminalization but felt the 4.5 threshold grams proposed by the province was far too high.

“Four and a half grams is an incredible amount,” Lecky told the council, according to a local website. Asked by reporters afterwards how much he would like to see, he replied: “It would be a lot less. … Who knows where that number is, why they went with that number. I just know it’s not is not the right number.”

It was reported this month that the Department of Health was considering a lower threshold of 2.5 grams. But proponents of decriminalization say it would simply put users at greater risk by pushing them more often into the illegal drug market.

While the overhaul of drug laws is primarily driven by the opioid crisis, interest in legalizing psychedelic drugs, especially for therapeutic purposes, is growing.

‘Psychedelic use’ on the rise

“We are seeing an increasing use of psychedelics in medicine, and in palliative care in particular,” said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a professor at the University of Toronto, one of Canada’s most respected experts on policy reform. on drugs.

“We have recently seen a psychedelic industry emerge and now have many companies listed on our public stock exchanges,” he told VOA.

Owusu-Bempah added that the re-examination of Canada’s drug laws is partly driven by the growing recognition that these laws have been applied unevenly.

“We are also paying increasing attention in this country to racial disparities in drug law enforcement, and the consequences or implications this has, not only for those directly affected and the communities from which they come, but for our society as a whole,” Owusu-Bempah said.

“As these forces continue to grow and increasingly converge, lawmakers will have no choice but to act.”

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