Motion before Niagara council pushes for decriminalization of drug possession

Don Mitchell / Global News

A regional councillor and a harm reduction executive are urging Niagara leaders to push for a federal government task force to explore the decriminalizing of all drugs in Canada.

St. Catharine’s Coun. Laura Ip is set to present the motion at Niagara’s regional council meeting on Thursday in the hopes of getting the attention of the federal government’s Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and Minister of Justice David Lametti.

Ip’s submission leans on a report released by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) in July calling for the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs suggesting that decriminalization for simple possession is an “effective way to reduce the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use.”

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The association called for the creation of a national task force to look into drug policy reform with the potential goal of finding alternatives to criminal sanctions for simple possession and more supports for the availability and integration of drugs into health and social programs.

Glen Walker, Positive Living Niagara’s executive director and co-chair of the Overdose Prevention Network of Niagara (OPNN), says such a move could be an “important tool” in fighting rising overdose cases in the region.

“I think for us, it’s really about how do we change the thinking about people with addictions from ‘you’re a criminal’ to ‘this is a health issue,'” said Walker.

“We’re not really saying people should get off scot-free (for drug possession), what we are saying is what mechanisms are in place to have them talk to a medical professional or discuss what they need in terms of help and support.”

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Walker says his organization has seen examples of success with the model in Portugal, where they’ve had decriminalization for minor possession for quite some time.

“They’ve seen dramatic drops in the rates of transmission of infections like HIV, for example,” Walker said. “The death rates have dropped dramatically from overdoses.”

Niagara’s opioid overdose fatalities have increased year over year, according to public health.

Recent numbers from Emergency Medical Services (EMS) show opioid overdose calls are on the rise with 400 suspected opioid overdose responses between January and August of 2020, which is about 50 calls per month.

In 2019, the service responded to 498 calls for the entire year for an average of 41.5 calls per month.

A total of 89 people died from suspected opioid overdoses in 2019. Public health says 56 people in the region have died from suspected overdoses in the first five months of this year.

Walker believes that’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg as the OPNN estimates that only about 20 per cent are actually calling 911 when there’s an overdose.

“It’s because there’s this fear they’ll be charged,” said Walker. “If we can remove some of that, then we’ll have more people reaching out for help in crisis.”

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He goes on to say he is seeing a “ground-swell” of support from local governments for a federal task-force.

“I think there is a growing momentum here,” Walker said, “St. Catherine’s city council passed a motion and Niagara Falls city council is looking at this issue.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Global News in December that the federal government is not considering decriminalizing drugs.

Trudeau said Ottawa would be looking at “other things,” like safe consumption sites, to mitigate the opioid issue and that further decisions would be made “based on science.”

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