Is Ottawa finally ready to decriminalize drug use – or ‘more concerned about losing votes than saving lives?’

The 6:00 AM call was one that Tanya Nayler had feared she would get for years.

It was November 2020 and her sister called to tell her that their brother Ryan had died of a drug overdose. It was the week before his 35th birthday.

“My mom was also worried about that knock on the door for years,” Nayler said.

“That’s the fear that many families and friends live with, with people in their lives who use drugs,” she said, especially when the drugs they are taking are contaminated with potent opioids such as fentanyl.

Ryan Nayler had talked about legalizing illegal drugs and decriminalizing their use, but Tanya said she didn’t really understand the issue at the time.

As she thinks back to 2020, she wonders if someone in the house where Ryan lived might have called 911 when he overdosed — and might have saved his life — had there not been a chance of getting arrested herself.

“I had a sense of how drugs were negatively impacting his life, and I didn’t quite understand how the criminalization of the drugs plays a part in that,” she said.

“And so I think stories that explain are helpful, and I wish I didn’t have to learn about it on the other side of it, from my brother’s death.”

Nayler, a trained attorney, leaves her job with the city of Ottawa and takes a significant pay cut to work in the office of new Democrat MP Gord Johns on his private member’s bill C-216, which would include drug possession. decriminalize for personal use.

“It’s something I felt compelled to do because of what happened to my brother and what happens to people’s loved ones every day,” she said.

“If I can play a part in making this happen, it’s a way of honoring my brother’s memory.”

As thousands of Canadians die each year from opioid overdoses, Parliament is turning its attention to two laws that would try to tackle the epidemic.

What proponents say is needed is a complete rethink of the approach to drug use, with decriminalization part of that equation, along with safe drug supply and investment in support and social services.

“We need a renaissance when it comes to drug policy in this country,” Johns told the Star.

According to the latest federal data, more than 5,300 opioid-related deaths were recorded in Canada between January and September 2021, mostly in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

According to model projections released in December by the Public Health Agency of Canada, as many as 4,000 Canadians could die of drug overdose in the first half of this year.

Yet the government has barely given in to decriminalization, despite ministers repeatedly stating that drug use should be treated primarily as a health problem. The package of judicial reforms in Bill C-5 proposes changes to the handling of drug possession cases, but does not eliminate possession as a criminal offence.

“They’re concerned about losing votes to Conservatives, more concerned about losing votes than saving lives,” Johns said.

Like the liberals, the conservatives during last year’s election campaign said the opioid crisis should be treated as a health problem and law enforcement should focus on traffickers, but they also did not call for drug possession offenses to be revoked.

Johns’ bill would also create a process to remove certain drug-related convictions and establish a national strategy for problem substance use.

A vote on the bill’s second reading is expected around June 1, when all eyes will be on Liberals to see if they will at least vote to send the bill to committee so Parliament can hear from experts and people who use drugs. about what would be a fundamental shift in Canadian drug law.

“We are forcing the government to either vote to continue making this a criminal issue in Canada, or they are going to back their words and vote to end the criminalization of people and make it a real health issue,” said Johns.

As some experts point out, it’s not necessarily a health problem either, as not everyone who takes drugs needs treatment.

“So how do we get to people who need help with their drug use in a way that doesn’t involve the police?” said University of Toronto criminologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah.

Health Canada has been investigating requests from British Columbia, Vancouver and Toronto to exempt people in those jurisdictions from possession offences.

The office of Secretary of State for Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said in a statement to the Star that it is “committed to improving access to a safer offer, reducing harm and using resources to help people who use drugs.” away from the criminal justice system and towards a health-oriented approach.”

Government bill C-5, to be passed with support from the NDP, would require police and prosecutors to use the discretion they already have to consider taking drug possession cases out of court. This may involve sending people for treatment with their consent, or simply letting them go with a warning or no action at all.

The bill’s emphasis is on “decriminalization” – the possible lifting of sentences – which is a positive step, yet leaves the risk of drug users coming into contact with the police as the offenses remain on the books. said Daniel Bear, professor in the faculty of social and community services at Humber College.

“Decriminalization or decriminalization does not substantially increase drug use,” he said. “One of the great fears of going down this road is that suddenly everyone will start taking drugs and if there is no threat of punishment, everyone will just say, ‘Sure, I’ll try heroin.’ … There is no evidence to support that idea.”

Bill C-5 also does not affect police or prosecutors who do not consider alternatives to charges and/or prosecutions.

Research has shown that the freedom to take alternative measures is not applied equally to all groups, with black and indigenous people disproportionately targeted by the police and subject to harsher measures, Owusu-Bempah said.

“To me, that’s why revocation (possession offenses) is so important, because otherwise you still have a group that is disproportionately targeted,” he said.

A criminal charge may also be an obstacle to receiving treatment. Nayler said her brother was barred from a treatment center because he had been charged with other crimes unrelated to drug possession. “It’s hard not to think how things could have turned out differently if he hadn’t been rejected,” she said.

The possibility of an indictment may be enough to prevent people from seeking help, Nayler said. This is despite the government enacting the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in 2017, which aims to protect anyone who overdoses or witnesses a possession charge if they call 911.

“Even with the act, there will still be that reluctance unless there is a blanket withdrawal of those possession charges,” she said.

Canada’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, the federal agency that prosecutes drug crimes, issued a directive in 2020 that prosecutors must divert simple cases of possession and focus only on “the most serious cases raising public safety concerns.” The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has also called for decriminalization.

Nevertheless, thousands of people are accused of drug possession each year in Ontario alone.

According to data from the Ontario Court of Justice, a total of 5,927 property cases were filed in provincial courts in 2021, representing 2.8 percent of criminal cases. That figure was slightly down from 6,381 cases in 2020, when it was 3.1 percent of cases.

While the data shows that the vast majority of those charges are eventually dropped — in line with the directive to federal prosecutors — it still means people are in contact with the police and criminal charges linger over their heads for months, if not longer. to hang.

“You could lose your house, you could lose your family, you could lose your job. The impact is huge,” said Zoë Dodd, co-organizer of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society. “And it’s a disproportionate number of black and indigenous people being charged on property charges, so there’s a racist element to the charges as well.”

Dodd said funds should be diverted from police budgets to services such as housing and culturally appropriate programs for people who really want help, stressing that it is not effective in directing people to treatment.

“We don’t want to send people to jail, so are we going to make them ‘prisoners’ instead?” she said. “We all know that a person’s journey of healing has to start on its own. We cannot just force them through the courts.”

Ryan Nayler lived with both substance use and bipolar disorder, and started using drugs to deal with the latter condition, Tanya Nayler said. He was interested in treatment at various times, but was never able to access programs in a timely manner, leaving Tanya wondering how the government plans to direct even more people to treatment without major capacity increases.

Ryan, a musician with a master’s degree in library science, was also an animal rights activist who once spent his life savings flying across the country to advocate against the euthanizing of rabbits at the University of Victoria.

“We’ve been apart for 11 months, and it’s a bit strange that it’s been over a year since my brother died and now I’m older than my older brother,” she said. “And if I have an average lifespan, I’ll end up having to live more than half my life without my brother.”

Tanya had a child during the pandemic, which Ryan never met.

“It’s the small losses that will always pile up for decades,” she said, “and there are thousands of Canadians dealing with that.”

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