Ottawa — A Canadian province on Tuesday decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and other hard drugs as part of a sweeping policy shift to deal with a opioid overdose crisis which killed thousands. Adults found with up to 2.5 grams of these drugs, rather than being jailed or fined, will be given information on how to access drug treatment programs.
The police will not seize their drugs either.
However, sellers and traffickers of hard drugs will continue to face criminal prosecution during the three-year pilot project in British Columbia.
“The situation has never been more urgent,” Dependencies Minister Carolyn Bennett told a press conference on the eve of the new rules coming into force.
“The effects of this public health crisis have devastated communities across British Columbia and across Canada,” she said. When the measure was announced last May, she had hinted that it could be extended to other provinces.
British Columbia is the epicenter of a crisis that has claimed more than 10,000 overdose deaths since it declared a public health emergency in 2016. That’s about six people who die each day from poisoning with toxic drugs in the province of five million people, leading COVID-19[feminine] deaths at the start of the pandemic.
Nationwide, the death toll has topped 30,000.
Officials hope the policy change will eliminate the stigma associated with drug use that prevents people from seeking help and promote the idea that addiction is a health problem.
Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s chief public health officer, said the stigma and shame associated with drug use “cause people to hide their addiction.”
“That means a lot of people are dying alone,” she said.
Kathryn Botchford, whose husband Jason died of a drug overdose in 2019, said she had no idea he was even using drugs.
“When I found out how he died, I thought there must be some mistake. Jason doesn’t do drugs. We have three young children and he knows the risks,” she said. “But I was wrong. He died alone using an illegal substance.”
Botchford said she initially kept her cause of death a secret, even from their children. “His secret became my secret.”
But eventually, she says, “I realized that… I was unconsciously creating shame.”
Canada has spent more than C$800 million (US$600 million) trying to stem the opioid crisis, including drug treatment, naloxone supplies and the opening of 39 consumption sites drug abuse across Canada.
Bennett pointed to successes such as more than 42,000 overdoses canceled at safe injection sites and more than 209,000 people referred to health and social services in recent years.
But she also acknowledged “that access to treatment remains a gap” on which we are working.