VANCOUVER, Jan 31 (Reuters) – The western Canadian province of British Columbia launched a three-year pilot program on Tuesday as part of an effort to crack down on people carrying heroin, meth, ecstasy or crack cocaine. A drug overdose crisis.
According to official data, BC accounted for a third of the 32,000 overdose and trafficking deaths nationally since 2016. The province declared the drug a public health emergency that year.
The problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted illicit drug supply chains and support services, leaving people with more toxic drugs to use alone.
Preliminary data released Tuesday by the province showed 2,272 suspected drug poisoning deaths in 2022, the second-highest annual toll after 2021, which had 34 deaths.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government said in May it would allow the drug to be decriminalized for the first time in Canada. By not prosecuting people who carry small amounts of drugs, the BC government hopes to treat the issue as a health problem through the criminal justice system.
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The province says the exemption is intended to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and make it easier to access authorities for guidance.
Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto, said the move is a laudable first step, but more needs to be done to tackle the drug problem.
“The problem with these substances is that we have a large, illegal supply that can cause great harm,” Schwartz said. “To really tackle this, we need a comprehensive public health approach. This demonetisation, that’s a first step.”
Drugs on the exemption list, which include fentanyl and other opioids, are illegal and only exempt from arrest for possession of up to 2.5 grams for personal use.
“For many years we have had a policy of not arresting people for personal possession of drugs” but the change will mean the seizure of small amounts of drugs, said a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department.
Other Canadian communities are watching the pilot closely. They also face an increase in drug overdose deaths.
Many health experts argue that decriminalization will encourage drug users to use in safer places where they can access medical care.
Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto Editing by Deepa Babington
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