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Scrap thresholds in requests to decriminalize simple drug possession: coalition

To date, British Columbia, Toronto and Vancouver have asked Ottawa for section 56 exemption request
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health Carolyn Bennett at a news conference after the federal cabinet was sworn in, in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

More than 20 advocacy organizations are urging the federal minister of mental health and addictions to not require quantity limits from jurisdictions requesting to decriminalize simple drug possession.

Legal and health organizations have asked Carolyn Bennett to waive the need for jurisdictions to set threshold amounts in requests for exemption from criminal penalties for those who carry small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

The coalition, which includes the HIV Legal Network and BC Centre on Substance Use, said if thresholds are set too low, drug users who purchase above the limit will continue to be criminalized, especially those who are racialized and low-income.

Sandra Ka Hon Chu, executive director of the HIV Legal Network, said she is concerned that the federal government will come up with a low threshold that does not reflect how people use drugs, and “all the benefits of decriminalization will be lost.”

The coalition said that if the government insists on setting quantity limits, they should do so while centring the experiences of people who use drugs.

Ka Hon Chu said there are different patterns of drug use across the country, noting that people in remote and rural communities might possess more because it is more difficult to access a supply.

Though the organizations don’t advocate for thresholds, if they are in place, Ka Hon Chu said they “absolutely need to be” accompanied by evidence that the person is actually trafficking drugs, as opposed to carrying them for personal use.

“It can’t be that a little bit above the threshold means you’re automatically considered a trafficker. All of the protections of criminal law must apply; there must be actual other evidence of trafficking,” she said.

ALSO READ: Lack of safe supply and evidence-based care at the core of B.C. drug deaths: report

Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act sets out that the health minister can exempt “any person or class of persons” if the minister believes “the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”

To date, British Columbia, Toronto and Vancouver have asked Ottawa for section 56 exemption requests under the act, which would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of substances like cocaine, heroine and fentanyl.

British Columbia seeks to establish a threshold quantity at 4.5 grams for opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine, according to its request submission to Health Canada.

The province is willing to work with Health Canada to define thresholds for other substances, the submission said.

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said in a recent interview that although there wasn’t consensus on threshold, they went with the evidence that was presented by people who use drugs.

Vancouver proposed thresholds for opioids at two grams, cocaine at three grams, crack cocaine at one gram and amphetamine at 1.5 grams, according to its request submission.

Mary Clare Zak, managing policy director for the City of Vancouver, said she was considered the lead on the file for submitting the city’s exemption request.

Zak said there is a dearth of research on what threshold amounts ought to be, and the research that does exist is outdated because drugs have become stronger and users’ tolerance has increased.

Toronto did not propose specific thresholds for illicit substances, noting a majority of those community stakeholders it consulted with highlighted the challenges of setting a quantity for possession.

The city’s submission did reference a group consulted who proposed 1.7 grams for any drug, because it is a large enough supply for multiple days for the average person who uses drugs, while not being so low that they would lose the price advantage of buying in bulk.

Toronto Public Health said in a statement Thursday that while the letter from the coalition has been received, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, has not read it at this time.

In the process of submitting its request, Toronto Public Health continues to work closely with a range of stakeholders, including people who use drugs and organizations who support this population, a spokesperson said.

NDP MP Gord Johns has introduced a private member’s bill to decriminalize the possession of drugs for personal use. It is currently at second reading in the House of Commons, though a private member’s bill put forward by an opposition MP is much less likely to become law than a government bill.

Johns, who is the NDP mental health and addictions critic, said in a statement that Canada will not be able to properly address the ongoing overdose crisis if it continues to stigmatize people with substance use disorders or those who use drugs casually.

The crisis is “needlessly killing thousands of people,” and a new approach needs to be taken or else thousands more will die, Johns said.

Since January 2016, almost 25,000 Canadians have died from opioid-related causes, excluding Quebec, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Asked whether Bennett would consider the coalition’s proposal to scrap thresholds, her office did not directly respond but said in a statement that it cannot comment on exemption requests currently under review, and that each one is carefully reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

That review takes into account considerations like evidence of benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians, Bennett’s office said.

Ka Hon Chu said she thinks decriminalization is long overdue.

“We know that criminalizing people who use drugs has led to so many harms,” she said.

Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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