Is Ottawa finally ready to decriminalize drug use — or “more worried about losing votes than saving lives?”

The 6 a.m. phone call was one Tanya Nayler had feared she would receive for years.

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

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

“It’s the fear that a lot of families and friends live with, with people in their lives who use drugs,” she said, especially when the drugs they use are contaminated with strong opioids such as fentanyl.

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

Looking back on 2020, she can’t help but wonder if someone in the house Ryan lived in might have called 911 when he overdosed — and possibly saved his life — if he there had been no chance of being arrested.

“I had this perception of how drugs were negatively impacting his life, and I didn’t really understand how the criminalization of drugs plays into that,” she said.

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

A lawyer by training, Nayler quit her job with the City of Ottawa and took a major pay cut to work in the office of NDP MP Gord Johns on his private member’s Bill C-216 which would decriminalize, among other things, possession of drugs for personal use.

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

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

As thousands of Canadians continue to die each year from opioid overdoses, Parliament turns its attention to two pieces of legislation that would attempt to tackle the epidemic.

Advocates say there is a need for a complete rethink of the approach to drug use, with decriminalization being part of that equation, along with a safe supply of drugs and investment in support and social services.

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

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

Modeling projections released in December by the Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that up to 4,000 Canadians could die from overdoses in the first half of this year.

Yet the government has barely budged on decriminalisation, despite ministers repeatedly saying drug use should be treated primarily as a health issue. His package of court 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 worried about losing votes to the Conservatives, more about losing votes than saving lives,” Johns said.

Like the Liberals, the Conservatives said during the election campaign last year that the opioid crisis should be treated as a health issue and that law enforcement should focus on the traffickers, but they don’t nor have they sought the repeal of drug possession offences.

Johns’ bill would also create a procedure to expunge certain drug-related convictions and establish a national strategy on problematic substance use.

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

“We are forcing the government to either vote to continue to make this a criminal problem in Canada, or stand by their words and vote to end the criminalization of people and truly make this a health problem,” Johns said.

As some experts point out, it is not necessarily a health problem either, as not all drug users need treatment.

“How can we then reach people who will need help with their drug use in a way that doesn’t involve the police in the equation?” said University of Toronto criminologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah.

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

The office of Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said in a statement to the Star that it was “committed to improving access to safer supplies, reducing harm and using resources to divert people who use drugs from the criminal justice system and towards a health-based approach.

The government’s Bill C-5, which will pass with the support of the NDP, would force police and prosecutors to use the discretion they already have to consider sending drug possession cases out of court. This could include sending people into treatment with their consent, or simply letting them go with a warning or no action at all.

The bill emphasizes ‘decriminalization’ – the possible removal of penalties – which is a positive step but still leaves the risk of people who use drugs coming into contact with the police as criminal offenses remain in the books, said Daniel Bear, a 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 big fears of going down this road is that suddenly everyone will start using drugs and if there’s no threat of punishment everyone will be like, ‘Of course , I’m going to try heroin.’ … There is no evidence to support this idea.

Nor does Bill C-5 entail any consequences for police or prosecutors who do not consider alternatives to charges and/or prosecution.

Research has shown that discretion to pursue alternative measures is not applied equally across groups, with black and Indigenous people being disproportionately targeted by police and impacted by harsher measures, said Owusu-Bempah.

“To me, that’s why the repeal (of possession offences) is so important, because you’ll still have a disproportionately targeted group otherwise,” he said.

Being charged with a crime can also be a barrier to getting treatment. Nayler said his brother was denied access to a treatment center because he had been charged with other offenses unrelated to drug possession. “It’s hard not to think about how things might have turned out differently if he hadn’t been turned away,” she said.

The possibility of charges may be enough to keep people from seeking help, Nayler said. This is despite the government introducing the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act in 2017, which aims to protect anyone who has or witnesses an overdose from being charged with possession if they call the 911.

“Even with the law, there will always be this reluctance unless there is a general repeal of these possession charges,” she said.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada, the federal agency that prosecutes drug-related crimes, issued a directive in 2020 that prosecutors should divert simple possession cases and focus only on “the most serious cases raising public safety concerns”. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is also calling for decriminalization.

Nevertheless, thousands of people in Ontario alone continue to be charged with drug possession every year.

A total of 5,927 possession cases entered the provincial court system in 2021, representing 2.8 per cent of criminal cases, according to data from the Ontario Court of Justice. This figure was down slightly from 6,381 cases in 2020, when it was 3.1% of cases.

Even though the data shows that the vast majority of those charges are eventually dropped — per the directive to federal prosecutors — it still means people are having interactions with police and have criminal charges hanging over them for months or even more. more.

“You could lose your home, you could lose your family, you could lose your job. The impact is huge,” said Zoë Dodd, co-organizer with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society. “And that’s a disproportionate number of black and Indigenous people being charged with these possession charges, so there’s also a racist element to the charges.”

Dodd said resources should be diverted from police budgets to services such as housing and culturally appropriate programs for people who really want help, pointing out that diverting people to treatment is ineffective.

“We don’t want to send people to prison, so we’re going to make them ‘patient-prisoners’ instead?” she says. “We all know that a person’s healing journey must begin with themselves. We cannot simply force them to go through the courts.

Ryan Nayler lived with both drug addiction and bipolar disorder, having started using drugs to cope with the latter condition, Tanya Nayler said. He has been interested in treatment on several occasions but has never been able to access programs in a timely manner, leading Tanya to wonder how the government intends to divert even more people to treatment without a raise. major of capacity.

A musician with a Masters in Library Science, Ryan was also an animal rights activist who once spent his savings flying across the country to fight the bunny slaughter at the University of Victoria.

“We’re 11 months apart, and it’s kind of weird 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 live an average lifespan, I’m going to end up living more than half my life without my brother.”

Tanya had a child during the pandemic, whom Ryan never got to meet.

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

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