N.S. doctor helps lead national call to action for clinicians to support drug decriminalization

Click to play video: 'N.S. physician leading call to transform drug policy in Canada'
N.S. physician leading call to transform drug policy in Canada
A physician is helping lead a call to action for healthcare providers across Canada to support the decriminalization of illegal drugs and substance use. A petition launched July 1st aims to transform drug policy in Canada so that people with substance use disorders are treated through the health care system instead of the criminal justice system. Alexa MacLean has more. – Jul 2, 2021

A Nova Scotia-based doctor is helping to lead a nationwide call for clinicians to support a new petition calling for the federal government to decriminalize illegal substances.

“It’s an opportunity for clinicians to lend their support and make their voice heard that substance use needs to be addressed as a health issue and not a justice issue,” Dr. Tiffany O’Donnell said, who is co-chair of Doctors for Decriminalization, a national coalition of doctors advocating for drug policy change.

Dr. Tiffany O’Donnell is a physician currently practicing out of Sipekne’katik First Nation. She is also the co-chair of a national organization called Doctors for Decriminalization. Tiffany O'Donnell / Submitted

O’Donnell says she and other physicians often see the negative health outcomes that come with people who have substance use disorders ending up with a criminal record, instead of ready and sustainable access to health care supports.

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“Many people have a substance use disorder, some don’t but many do, and that’s really criminalizing a medical condition. Criminalization leads to all sorts of poor outcomes, increased rates of homelessness, difficulty accessing employment, and difficulty engaging with the health care system,” O’Donnell said.

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READ MORE: Seven more B.C. mayors support Vancouver’s push for drug decriminalization

O’Donnell says she’s seen firsthand the disproportionate impacts racialized communities experience as a result of drug criminalization.

“We know that racialized communities are much more vulnerable to criminalization than non-racialized communities and that’s despite rates of substance use being comparable across the board. And, that kind of discrimination needs to end,” she adds.

The new petition follows a similar call to action that the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police put forward to the federal government last June.

Police chiefs nationwide unified their voice in calling for Ottawa to decriminalize the personal possession of illicit drugs in recognition of substance use disorder being a public health issue. That call to action remains unanswered by the federal government.

READ MORE: Canadian police chiefs call for decriminalization of simple illicit drug possession

“What I would like to see is a shift in the way we resource,” Emma Halpern said, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia.

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Halpern says the non-profit organization works with women and girls who are often criminalized because of an addiction.

“That can be because they are engaging in illegal activity to fund their addiction, to be able to pay for the drugs that they are using. Or, because they become victimized as a result of their addiction,” she said.

Halpern says she ultimately wants to see resources used to criminalize substance use disorders reallocated into drastically increasing access to health care supports.

“To trauma therapy, to helping people who no longer want to use substances but have addictions, to safe housing, to a liveable income,” she said.

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