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Canada decriminalise hard drugs to fight overdose crisis

A Canadian province has decriminalised the possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and other hard drugs in a radical policy shift to address an opioid overdose crisis that has killed thousands.

Officials hope the change in policy on Tuesday will remove the stigma associated with drug use that keeps people from seeking help, and foster the notion that addiction is a health issue.

Stigma and shame around using drugs “drives people to hide their addictions,” said British Columbia’s chief public health officer Bonnie Henry. 

“That means that many people are dying alone,” she added.

Adults found in British Columbia with up to 2.5 grams of these drugs, rather than face jail or fines, will be provided with information on how to access addiction treatment programs. And their drugs won’t be seized.

Sellers and traffickers of hard drugs, however, will continue to face criminal prosecution during the three-year pilot project.

Addictions treatment gap

British Columbia is the epicentre of a crisis that has seen more than 10,000 overdose deaths since it declared a public health emergency in 2016. 

Nationwide the number of fatalities has surpassed 30,000.

Scott MacDonald, a doctor at a Vancouver clinic that was the first in North America to provide medical-grade heroin to patients, said under the new rules “people will be more inclined to seek vital substance use care and other health services they so often need”.

Police no longer confiscating their drugs will reduce their stress, and “will make people’s lives easier,” he added.

The criminal code exemption granted to British Columbia for the pilot project makes the province only the second jurisdiction in North America to decriminalise hard drugs after the US state of Oregon did so in November 2020.

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The state saw a dramatic drop in arrests that have freed up police and court resources, but Oregon’s initiative has faced pushback over the relatively few people (less than one percent) taking up offers of addiction help.

“Their effort to nudge people (off drugs) completely failed,” Stanford researcher Keith Humphreys said. He and others blamed a lack of access to addiction treatment services and a chaotic rollout of funding to support the initiative.

Canada has spent more than $600 million (Can$800 million) to try to stem the opioid crisis, including on addiction treatment, Naloxone supplies and opening 39 supervised drug consumption sites across Canada.

Bennett pointed to successes such as the more than 42,000 overdoses reversed at safe injection sites, and more than 209,000 individuals referred to health and social services in recent years.

But she acknowledged also “that access to treatment remains a gap” that is still being worked on.

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