VANCOUVER, Jan 31 (Reuters) – The western Canadian province of British Columbia on Tuesday launched a three-year pilot program to stop prosecuting people for possessing small amounts of heroin, meth, ecstasy or crack cocaine. drug overdose crisis.
According to official figures, BC accounts for one-third of the 32,000 deaths from overdoses and human trafficking nationally since 2016. The province declared drug overdoses a public health emergency that year.
The problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted illicit drug supply chains as well as support services, leaving people with toxic drugs to use alone.
Preliminary data released by the province on Tuesday showed 2,272 deaths from illicit drug poisoning in 2022, second only to 2021, with 34 deaths.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government said in May that it would allow BC to decriminalize drugs in Canada. By not prosecuting people who carry small amounts of drugs, the BC government hopes to address the issue as a health issue rather than through the criminal justice system.
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The province says the exemption is designed to reduce the stigma associated with drug use and make it easier for people to turn to authorities for guidance.
Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto, said the measure is a laudable first step, but more needs to be done to address the drug problem.
“The problem we have with these substances is that we have an illegal stockpile that causes a lot of damage,” Schwartz said. “We need a comprehensive public health approach to really deal with this. This is decriminalization, this is the first step.”
Drugs on the exemption list, including fentanyl and other opioids, remain illegal, and the exemption from arrest is limited to 2.5 grams for personal use.
“For many years, we’ve had a de facto policy of not arresting people for personal drug possession,” but the change will reduce the number of arrests for small amounts of drugs, a Vancouver Police Department spokesman said.
Other Canadian communities are watching the pilot closely. They also face increased drug overdose deaths.
Many health experts argue that decriminalization encourages drug users to use in safe settings 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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