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The answer to Canada's opioid overdose crisis is decriminalization, say Vancouver drug users and advocates

Vancouver drug users and advocates marched in Vancouver on Tuesday to demand that the federal government decriminalize the use of illicit drugs immediately.

'We really need to rethink our entire drug policy,' says rally organizer on 'national day of action'

Nearly 200 drug users and advocates marched the streets of Vancouver on Tuesday to demand the decriminlization of the use of illicit drugs.

"Without some kind of decriminalization, without making people feel safe enough to access services, to access treatment, we cannot get out of this epidemic. We really need to rethink our entire drug policy," said Jordan Westfall, organizer of the event and president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD). 

The march, which ended at the footsteps of the law courts, was part of a "national day of action" on the overdose crisis. 

Rallies were held across Canada in Prince George, Victoria, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

Last year, 1,422 people died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C., an increase of 43 per cent from 2016, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. 

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe referred to 2017 as "the most tragic year ever."

Lapointe said approximately 81 per cent of suspected deaths last year involved fentanyl, and it was often combined with other illicit drugs — most often heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine.

About 90 per cent of those who died were alone inside a home when they suffered an overdose. 

Nobody died at any supervised consumption site or at any of the drug overdose prevention sites, said the coroner in January when it released the latest data. 

Because of those statistics, marchers wore red to call for an end to the practice of "red-zoning," which they say can force drug users to consume in unsafe places. 

The term red-zoning refers to when someone is arrested and receives conditions from the police or judge to not be in certain parts of the city. 

Sometimes that means staying away from the Downtown Eastside, where services such as shelters and safe-injection sites are. 

"That could mean that someone loses access to health care or even their own housing," said Westfall.

If the person is caught in violation of their court order, they could end up back in court and the cycle continues.

"When a person goes to jail the outcomes are terrible. People are more likely to contract HIV. People have a permanent criminal record. People can't find work, can't find housing," he said. 

Parents who lost loved ones were there to call for better access and funding to treatment beds.

While the focus of last year's protest was on the health care aspects of the opioid epidemic, those who've lost loved ones said funding treatment beds is still a priority.

"If you wait now for treatment, you can die. The drug supply is poisoned," said Louise Cameron, who says her eldest son took his own life because of the shame and stigma around addiction. 

Photos by the CBC's Tina Lovgreen. For more photos of the march follow her on Twitter or Instagram.