As opioid deaths skyrocket, Kingston takes a long look at drug decriminalization

Nearly two dozen agencies in the Kingston, Ont., area are asking residents what they think about decriminalizing illegal drugs for personal use as the region sees deaths from opioid use skyrocket.

Survey online until May 15, could pave way for exemption application

A few dozen white pills on a black backdrop.
Decriminalization is being explored as one potential way to stem the tide of opioid deaths in the Kingston, Ont., region, which have risen sharply in recent years. (Keith Srakocic/The Associated Press)

Nearly two dozen agencies in the Kingston, Ont., area are asking residents what they think about decriminalizing illegal drugs for personal use as the region sees deaths from opioid use skyrocket.

Between 2014 and 2020, there was a 330 per cent rise in opioid-related deaths in the region served by Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington (KFLA) Public Health, according to numbers from the health unit.

As a result, the Kingston, Frontenac, and Lennox & Addington Community Drug Strategy Advisory Committee has launched a survey to get people's thoughts on decriminalization — a tactic that's been implemented elsewhere, though not without controversy.

"It's not quite the same as legalization, but it's lifting that legal penalty for someone that may have [drugs] on them," said Sara Tryon, program planner with KFLA, one of the committee's community partners.

The survey first gets people to self-declare they're older than 16 and live in the area. It then asks their opinions on a range of statements related to decriminalization — for instance, whether they believe criminal charges deter people from using drugs, or if they feel decriminalization would reduce the stigma users face.

According to the health unit, the feedback will help inform how they respond to the local drug crisis and could also be part of a Health Canada application to decriminalize some unregulated drugs in the region.

People have until May 15 to fill it out.

"Decriminalization is a new way [to tackle the crisis here] and can be scary. But it is not currently working, our system," Tryon told CBC Radio's Ontario Today last week.

"And trying to make some changes for the positive is really where we should be looking and putting our efforts."

A downtown street in the summer with several pedestrians walking along the sidewalk.
People walk along Princess Street in downtown Kingston in 2021. The local councillor says he supports decriminalization and plans to share his thoughts in the survey that's circulating. (John Last/CBC)

Gaining popularity — but not without critics

Changes are already underway in British Columbia, which embarked in January on a three-year pilot project that decriminalized small amounts of most illegal drugs for people over 18.

Trafficking illegal drugs in B.C. or possessing them for the sake of trafficking can still land a person in prison, as could possessing them in places like airports, schools and child-care facilities.

The strategy has also gained steam in Ontario, with Toronto's board of health voting in 2021 to ask the federal government for an exemption and Hamilton's board asking city staff to produce a study on decriminalization the following year.

In 2021, the previous Kingston council also endorsed a motion by the health unit that supported decriminalization as a way to stem the tide of overdoses.

Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Counties are taking a unique approach to addressing illicit drugs in hopes to decriminalize personal drug use, a controversial move that has ignited global attention and debate. 20 community partners are undergoing a survey to better understand the public's opinion on the move. Sara Tryon, the program planner, spoke on the initiative.

While there's been pushback from some downtown residents and businesses who encounter people living and struggling with addictions on a regular basis, the data seems to suggest decriminalization is the right way forward, said King's Town Coun. Gregory Ridge.

"I certainly understand why they would feel that way. But I think that we also have to look at the larger picture here about harm mitigation," said Ridge, whose district includes Princess Street and other parts of Kingston's urban core.

"They're totally right to be concerned about that. If they're not feeling safe, they're not feeling safe ... but I'm not convinced that by decriminalizing [drug possession] it's going to make things worse."

A page from an electronic survey that asks four questions about drug use, with possible answers ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."
An excerpt from a survey asking people in the region covered by Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Health what they think about decriminalization of certain illegal drugs. (KFLAPH)

Current approach a 'catastrophic failure'

While it's too early to make firm conclusions about the B.C. pilot project, there's ample evidence that prohibiting and criminalizing drug possession has been a "huge catastrophic failure," said Kora DeBeck, a research scientist with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

"It does not effectively deter people from using substances. It has not kept substances away from young people, from the general public," said DeBeck, who also teaches public policy at Simon Fraser University.

The B.C. policy has two "unique" features, DeBeck said, that should be implemented elsewhere: police won't seize a person's drugs if they have less than the legal limit, and no one gets ticketed or told to go into treatment. 

The former limits the harm of withdrawal, DeBeck said, while the latter goes a long way to reduce feelings of stigma.

"There's very few risks associated with [decriminalization]," she said.

"We're monitoring, we're evaluating, we're looking for any potential unintended consequences or harms ... but I think in the big picture — although it's quite symbolically important — it's a pretty low-risk move."

A woman wearing a mask holds up a sign that reads 'For decrim to work, we need a safe supply'. She is at the head of a row of people marching on a street.
One concern that's been raised about decriminalization efforts like the one underway in B.C. is that they don't address the toxicity of street drugs. DeBeck champions ultimately moving beyond decriminalizing the drug supply to regulating it. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Part of a larger solution

Evidence from other jurisdictions, Tryon told Ontario Morning, has shown decriminalization increases the likelihood people with addictions seek health care and decreases the number of drug poisonings and blood-borne illnesses.

As of mid-week, the Kingston survey had received about 300 responses. If the final results — which also include dozens of focused conversations — show an interest in pursuing decriminalization locally, Tryon said KFLA would start work on an application for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The model they'd develop with would consider things like age limits, what kinds of drugs would be exempt, and how any potential harms would be addressed. The work could begin by the summer, she said.

The added benefit of the survey project, Tryon said, is that KFLA will also find out where the Kingston area is falling short when it comes to addictions-related services and be better positioned to bolster them.

"Decriminalization is not the one solution that's going to solve all of our issues related to substance use," she said.

"We need to have a system in place that's going to support addictions and mental health and all the issues that people are facing in our community."


Trevor Pritchard

Assignment producer/reporter

Trevor Pritchard is both a digital reporter and the weekend assignment producer at CBC Ottawa. He's previously reported in Toronto, Saskatoon and Cornwall, Ont.