Pubdate: Thu, 10 Aug 2017
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Matthew Pearson
Page: A1


Making everything legal 'crazy,' but might help, city officials

Decriminalizing all illegal drugs - not just marijuana - may help
decrease the devastating effects of drug use and addiction in Ottawa,
city officials said Wednesday.

They were responding to a suggestion by Toronto's medical officer of
health that such a drastic move could help address Canada's spiralling
opioid crisis.

Dr. Eileen De Villa told reporters last week the current approach to
drugs in her city and across the country "doesn't seem to be having
the desired impact."

She called for a public discussion on the merits of decriminalizing
all drugs in the wake of an overdose epidemic that claimed more than
250 lives in Toronto in 2015.

As Ottawa continues to tackle its own fentanyl crisis, some admit De
Villa's idea - which is similarly expressed in Toronto's 10-point
Overdose Action Plan - may be worth considering.

"It's a crazy thought, but it's a crazy thought that might actually
have some merit," said Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose Rideau-Vanier ward
includes several areas where drug use, poverty, crime and violence
intermingle. "Residents in my area and, I think, in our city
understand that drug use is now much more intertwined with health
care, rather than simply the Criminal Code."

People struggling with addiction are vulnerable and have to rely on
drug dealers, which in turn supports the criminal environment around
drugs. Decriminalization could undercut that, Fleury said.

Dr. Isra Levy, Ottawa's medical officer of health, wasn't available
for an interview, but said in a written statement that Ottawa Public
Health supports "new evidence-based approaches that contribute to
decreasing the impact of illicit drugs in our community, which could
include decriminalization.

"We know that criminalization of illicit drug use can be harmful,
opening up communities to illegal markets and organized crime,
quickening the spread of disease and increasing illicit drug
availability. There are considerations if decriminalization is to
proceed that would be important to reduce harms, such as lack of
access to youth, limiting marketing etc.," the statement said.

Currently, OPH's overdose prevention efforts include working with the
interagency Ottawa Overdose Prevention and Response Task Force,
co-ordinating public education and awareness campaigns about opioid
overdoses, and increasing Naloxone access and distribution. It also
publishes a monthly report of emergency department visits for drug
overdoses. In June, 135 people with life-threatening or potential
life-threatening circumstances due to drug overdoses visited an ER in
Ottawa. Of course, the figures do not count people who overdose and do
not go to hospital.

Released in March, Toronto's overdose action plan calls for a "public
health approach to drug policy" because the current approach has
reduced neither the demand for, or supply of, drugs.

Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use
(in certain amounts) in 2001, while at the same time increasing
investments in harm reduction and treatment services.

Enforcement continues to be a component of Portugal's drug strategy,
the action plan says, with efforts directed to high-level drug
trafficking rather than targeting the people who use drugs.

Following decriminalization in Portugal, research found a decrease in
HIV infection rates and drug-related deaths.

The Toronto plan paints a stark picture of what daily life is like for
a person who uses drugs. They are often denied or afraid to use
services and supports they need.

They may face eviction from their homes and sometimes have their
children taken away.

They're also forced to hide their drug use and to use drugs in unsafe
ways or places, heightening the risk of overdose.

"The lack of support and compassion for people is perhaps the greatest
harm of our current approach to drugs," the report says.

"There is no other group of people who are treated so poorly because
of a health issue."

In Canada, the federal government has committed to legalizing and
regulating cannabis, in part because the harms of criminalizing its
use, which include high rates of incarceration for nonviolent drug
offences, stigma and discrimination, were deemed to outweigh the benefits.

But there's been little mention in political circles of widening
legalization to include other drugs.

The discussion comes at a crucial time in Ottawa.

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre last month received approval
from Health Canada to open the first supervised injection site in the
nation's capital. The Nelson Street facility should be up and running
by October.

Meanwhile, a new opioid substitution program, only the second of its
kind in Canada, is expected to launch in September at the Shepherds of
Good Hope in the ByWard Market area.

Under the managed opioid program, participants will be prescribed
hydromorphone, provided by Inner City Health, which they will either
inject or take orally several times a day under supervision (this
differs from the Sandy Hill CHC's supervised injection site, where
injection users inject their own illegal drugs under supervision in a
sterile location).

Advocates have cheered the arrival of both programs, but the police
and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson remain unconvinced.

"I have not been a supporter of supervised injection sites, as I would
rather see scarce health dollars invested into treatment facilities,
so that we may help those who struggle with addictions," Watson said
in a written statement after Sandy Hill's site was approved.

"I am also concerned about the potential of increased criminal
activity near these sites. However, we gave responsibility for these
health decisions to our public health board, who has supported Sandy
Hill's request for a supervised consumption site. I very much hope
that my concerns are not realized and these citizens do get the help
they need to overcome their challenging addictions."

The health board last year voted 9-2 in support of the harm-reduction

Police Chief Charles Bordeleau has also said a safe injection site
will compromise public safety and that such facilities can lead to
increased drug trafficking and more crime as addicts pursue cash to
finance their habits.
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