VANCOUVER, Jan 31 (Reuters) – The western Canadian province of British Columbia launched a three-year pilot program on Tuesday aimed at ending prosecutions of people who transport small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy or crack, as part of an effort to deal with a drug overdose crisis.
British Columbia accounts for about a third of the 32,000 overdose and trafficking deaths nationwide since 2016, according to official data. The province declared the drug overdose a public health emergency that year.
The problem has been compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted illicit drug supply chains as well as support services, leaving people with more toxic drugs than they were using alone.
Preliminary data released Tuesday by the province showed there were 2,272 suspected deaths related to illicit drug toxicity in 2022, the second-highest annual number on record, behind 2021, which had 34 more deaths.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government said in May it would let British Columbia decriminalize drugs under a first-of-its-kind exemption in Canada. By not prosecuting people carrying small amounts of drugs, the BC government hopes to address the problem as a health issue rather than through the criminal justice system.
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The province says the exemption is intended to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and make it easier for authorities to approach for advice.
Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto, said the measure was laudable at first, but more needed to be done to tackle the drug problem.
“The problem we have with these substances is that we have a huge illicit supply that causes great harm,” Schwartz said. “To really deal with this, we need a comprehensive public health approach. This decriminalization is a first step.”
Drugs on the exemption list, which also includes fentanyl and other opioids, remain illegal, and the exemption from arrest is only for possession of up to 2.5 grams for personal use.
“For many years we have had a de facto policy of not arresting people for personal possession of drugs,” but this change will mean fewer seizures of small amounts of drugs, a spokesperson for the police department said. Vancouver.
Other Canadian communities are watching the pilot project closely. They also face an increase in drug overdose deaths.
Many health experts say decriminalization would encourage drug users to use them in safer spaces where they can access medical care.
Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto Editing by Deepa Babington
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