C-K councillors looking to address opioid crisis

·4 min read

In an effort to help combat the opioid issue, Chatham-Kent councillors are showing their support by lobbying for the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use by joining the ‘Big City Mayors’ call for action.

Elected officials were expected to consider a notice put forward by Chatham Councillor Amy Finn last week, urging the federal government to approach the opioid scourge with the same urgency brought to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finn, however, withdrew that motion to ask the municipality to support Ontario’s Big City Mayors in its efforts.

“I am writing on behalf of the Chatham-Kent Drug Awareness Council (CKDAC) to request your support in ending the poisoning crisis and the toll it is taking on our communities,” read a letter to the council. “We recognize the Municipality of Chatham-Kent has brought significant progress in some areas to respond to the overdose crisis, but there is still a long way to go.”

The detailed motion calls for the government to step up prevention, harm reduction and treatment programs, along with decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The majority of council members expressed being on board with the motion.

“It’s a big problem,” said Finn regarding the opioid crisis. “All you have to do is read the police briefs every morning.”

Councillor Brock McGregor said he thought it was a significant step to take in efforts to address the issue.

“There has been a significant movement in Canada and in Ontario towards decriminalization,” said McGregor. “Changing the overall focus of how we address the issue has been a success in places like Vancouver and Toronto. As we see in our community, we’re seeing the issue here as well. I think that’s why we made the decision on the board of health and why Councillor Finn brought it to council as well.”

Council approved the motion as well as a request that Community Human Services provide a presentation to council regarding the opioid crisis in Chatham-Kent.

Councillor Michael Bondy said he had concerns that decriminalization would eventually lead to the legalization and worried about the potential for mixed messaging when traffickers are charged.

However, Councillor Marjorie Crew said drug possession and drug trafficking are not the same and believes more awareness is needed.

Finn, a retired police officer, said too much of the police’s time is being spent on the issue. She added that it could easily be resolved by getting people the help they need instead of putting them in jail.

“We need to do something now before it gets worse,” added Finn. “Putting somebody in jail ties up resources.”

Finn said jailing addicts doesn’t solve the problem. She added that charging people with criminal offences in relation to the possession of small amounts of drugs only adds to the issue.

In Chatham-Kent, the pandemic continues to get worse. Last year, in 2020, the overdose deaths hit 15. A year prior, there were six overdose deaths. The rate of emergency visits due to opioid poisoning in Chatham-Kent has increased over the last five years and experienced some of its highest rates in 2020.

According to Finn, the issue with the opioid crisis is related to mental health issues.

“Nobody wakes up deciding they are going to become an addict,” said Finn. “These people have deep-rooted problems -- mental health issues.”

Mayor Darrin Canniff, who co-chaired the Big City Mayors’ mental health working committee, said the intent is to deal with personal drug use as a medical matter, not a criminal one.

Canniff and Ontario’s mayors aren’t the first group to call for the decriminalization of drugs.

Last year, Canada’s police chiefs endorsed the decriminalization of personal possession of drugs. They recommended for all police agencies across the country to recognize substance abuse and addiction as a public health issue.

Police Chief Gary Conn, the new president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, also said he supports the call to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

He added that they would instead focus on organized crime, drug trafficking, illegal production, and disrupting the supply of harmful substances in the community.

Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News

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