Nova Scotia

Decriminalizing illicit drugs not being considered in N.S., premier says

Premier Tim Houston says decriminalization of hard drugs is “not something that is on the radar” in the province.

Harm-reduction advocates continue to press for change: ‘We really need to think about moving forward’

A fentanyl tablet is shown beside syringes in an evidence bag.
A fentanyl tablet is shown beside syringes in an evidence bag. (CBC)

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says decriminalization of hard drugs is "not something that is on the radar" in the province.

Houston was reacting to news out of British Columbia, where people with small amounts of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamines and MDMA will not face criminal charges beginning next year.

The province, in the midst of tackling an overdose crisis, has been granted an exemption by the federal government from the law criminalizing drug possession. 

B.C. has reported more than 9,000 overdose deaths over the past six years.

Houston said his government will monitor the change B.C., but is not considering going in the same direction.

"We're very focused on supporting those with addictions and we also have the Office of Addictions and Mental Health, so it's certainly a main focus of ours," he said.

Naloxone, which can reverse deadly opioid overdoses, is available through participating pharmacies in Nova Scotia. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Justice Minister Brad Johns added Nova Scotia and B.C. are very different.

"We have the addiction problems but I don't know if they're as significant as B.C., so it's a different environment," he said.

However, the province is being urged to think again by harm-reduction groups.

"There is so much harm associated with criminalizing people using drugs and substances and that need exists everywhere and Nova Scotia is no exception," said Dr. Tiffany O'Donnell, a specialist in addiction medicine in the province and the co-chair of the national organization Doctors for Decriminalization.

O'Donnell points out the possibility of facing criminal penalties for using drugs creates all kinds of barriers for many people.

"Things like using alone, using secretively where if you were to overdose maybe nobody would be there to help you. Or fear of calling for help if there is an overdose," O'Donnell said.

More than 600 deaths reported in N.S. since 2011

Nova Scotia has an opioid use and overdose strategy, which includes access to naloxone kits that can reverse opioid overdoses.

The province posts information on a website which also includes data on the number of overdose deaths. 

It reports 22 confirmed or probable opioid toxicity deaths so far this year, as of April 27.

The same data shows more than 600 deaths in the province since 2011.

"One life is too many to lose, nobody should be poisoned to death," said Natasha Touesnard, the executive director of the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs, based in Dartmouth.

The group's mission is to empower people who use drugs and all staff are current or former users.

"We really need to think about moving forward," Touesnard said. "I'd love Nova Scotia to try to follow suit knowing there are clear benefits for people who use drugs."

The stigma associated with drugs is lessened when possession is decriminalized, she said, making it more likely for people to seek treatment.

Halifax Regional Police released a statement to CBC News on the issue, explaining the matter "is one for legislators to deliberate on within our own unique context and realities."

The statement said that Halifax police "are supportive of approaches that include harm reduction strategies, create opportunities for addictions support in our communities while being responsive to public safety."

It said police remain "actively engaged" in discussions at the local and national level. 

Both Touesnard and O'Donnell say they will keep advocating for change in Nova Scotia with fentanyl use already a major concern.

O'Donnell thinks the trends from Western Canada may be moving this way. "We're in a position here in Nova Scotia where we can be a little bit more proactive, so that's what we'd really like to see."



Gareth Hampshire began his career with CBC News in 1998. He has worked as a reporter in Edmonton and is now based in Halifax.

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