Canada considering drug decriminalization to fight overdose crisis

Anna Mehler Paperny
·2 min read

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's federal government is considering decriminalization of the possession of opioids and other illicit drugs in its efforts to tackle a spiraling overdose crisis, a government official said this week, even as data show the number of charges rising.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government is facing pressure to rein in drug overdoses, though it has previously downplayed decriminalization.

Vancouver has asked the federal government to exempt the city from part of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs within city boundaries. A spokesman for Health Minister Patty Hajdu said on Wednesday that decriminalization was under consideration and that discussions with Vancouver were under way but would not comment further

That could subject people caught with small amounts of drugs to fines or mandatory treatment.

Canada's opioid toxicity death rate for the first half of 2020, 14.6 per 100,000, was the highest since national data began to be collected in 2016, according to the federal government.

The number of people charged with drug possession of non-cocaine, non-heroin drugs in Canada more than tripled to 13,725 in the past decade to 2019, according to Statistics Canada. The number of people charged with heroin possession almost quintupled, to 1,043.

"The idea that we're kind of becoming more tolerant isn't borne out by the data," said Neil Boyd, director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted illicit drug supply chains, making for a more toxic supply; it has also lessened supports and driven people to use alone, health advocates say.

Health Canada's move to discuss decriminalization "comes at a time when the overdose crisis in our city has never been worse," Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in a statement Wednesday.

Many health experts argue decriminalization would encourage drug users to use in safer spaces where they can access medical care.

Trudeau dismissed decriminalization last year, telling the Canadian Broadcasting Corp it was not a "silver bullet."

Portugal decriminalized illicit drug possession and consumption in 2001. In the 2020 election Oregon voted to decriminalize.

This week Montreal's city council also voted to support decriminalization. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police came out in support of the move last summer.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)