VANCOUVER, Jan 31 (Reuters) – The western Canadian province of British Columbia on Tuesday began a three-year pilot program to stop prosecuting people for possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy or crack cocaine as a crackdown on Drug overdose crisis part of drug crime effort
B.C. has accounted for about a third of the 32,000 deaths nationwide from drug overdoses and human trafficking since 2016, according to official figures. 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 and support services, leaving people using more toxic drugs alone.
Preliminary figures released by the province on Tuesday show 2,272 deaths from suspected illicit drug poisonings in 2022, the second-largest annual figure on record after 2021, which saw an increase of 34 deaths.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government said in May it would let B.C. legalize the drugs, the first exemption of its kind in Canada. By not prosecuting people with small amounts of drugs, the B.C. government hopes to address the problem as a health problem, rather than through the criminal justice system.
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The province says the exemption is designed to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and make it easier for people to seek guidance from authorities.
Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto, said the measure is laudable as a first step, but more needs to be done to tackle the drug problem.
“The problem we have with these substances is that we have a huge illicit supply that does a lot of harm,” Schwartz said. “To really tackle this problem, we need a comprehensive public health approach. Decriminalization is just the first step.”
Drugs on the exemption list, which also includes fentanyl and other opioids, remain illegal, and only possession of no more than 2.5 grams of the drug for personal use is exempt from arrest.
“For many years, our de facto policy has been not to arrest people for personal drug possession,” but the change will mean fewer seizures of small quantities of drugs, a Vancouver Police Department spokesperson said.
Other Canadian communities are closely following the pilot project. They also face rising drug overdose deaths.
Many health experts believe that decriminalization will encourage drug users to use them in safer places where they have access to medical care.
Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto Editing by Deepa Babington
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