Ottawa

Ottawa harm reduction workers says B.C.'s drug decriminalization isn't enough

Ottawa advocates say the new drug rules in British Columbia to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs doesn't go far enough — but they hope Ontario considers decriminalization in the future.  

As B.C. decriminalizes possession of drugs, some say this won't protect all users

Starting January 2023, adults in B.C. will be allowed to posses up to 2.5 grams of drugs without being arrested or charged. (Dave Carey/submitted)

Ottawa harm reduction workers say the new drug rules in British Columbia to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs doesn't go far enough — but they hope Ontario considers decriminalization in the future. 

Starting next year, adults in B.C. will be able to possess small amounts of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. This exception is the first of its kind in Canada.

Ottawa Inner City Health's executive director Wendy Muckle said it's a step in the right direction but doesn't go far enough. 

"It's sort of like a baby step," Muckle said. "Canada is not exactly leading the charge ... because there's so many countries that have already done this."

Under the new law, adults will be allowed to posses up to 2.5 grams of drugs without being arrested or charged. But Muckle said capping it at such a low amount could actually harm drug users.

"We're very concerned that it's going to encourage the drug manufacturers to make the drugs more highly concentrated, so much stronger drugs in a much smaller, lighter quantity."

Wendy Muckle, CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health, says decriminalizing drugs for personal use is a good start but more needs to be done to protect drug users. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Very few substance users buy 2.5 grams or less at any given time, Muckle said.

Anything that encourages people to sell or purchase more potent substances could have a ripple effect, she said, citing the harm caused when more powerful opioids like fentanyl hit the market.

Unlike heroin and other non-synthetic opioids, Muckle said with drugs like fentanyl, "grains really being the difference between life and death." 

Muckle was also hoping governments would decriminalize small-scale dealing. 

Advocates call it "survival dealing." Unlike large-scale, profit-driven dealers, Muckle said these sellers are usually only in the market to finance their own habits. 

"People who are poor often sell small quantities of drugs ... to be able to afford their own needs," she said.

Tali Magboo Cahill is the team lead for the supervised consumption site at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre in Ottawa. She says safe supply is the best way to prevent more opioid deaths. (Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada)

Regulated supply's role in preventing deaths

Ottawa harm reduction nurse Tali Magboo Cahill also expressed concern at the low threshold.

Cahill, who works at a supervised consumption site, said this is problematic due to the high amounts of contamination and variability in the drug supply.

"You don't know what you're getting," Cahill said. "And it's stronger and stronger drugs," 

Cahill said she thinks decriminalisation alone will never be enough to prevent deaths.

"We also need to honestly provide a regulated supply of drugs so people know what they're getting, it's not contaminated and it's predictable." 

While Cahill said it;s affirming to see the B.C. government acknowledge the severity of the opioid crisis, larger-scale measures are needed. 

She expressed concern that the program doesn't start until January, "which means a lot more people dying." 

The program will last three years. Cahill said having a temporary program that only operates in a single province will make it hard for activists to make a case for its efficacy. 

Cahill said she'd like to see decriminalization passed at the federal level.

CBC Radio's All In A Day and Ottawa Morning, Michelle Allan

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