Canada on Tuesday proposed police and courts treat illicit drug use as a health issue, but stopped short of granting a request by British Columbia to decriminalize possession of small amounts for personal use.
Justice Minister David Lametti unveiled legislation that would roll back 20 mandatory minimum sentences including for minor drug crimes that the government said disproportionately impact indigenous and Black offenders.
The bill, which must still be passed by Parliament, also requires "police and prosecutors to consider diverting people to treatment programs or other supportive services" for simple possession offences, noting that criminal penalties can increase the stigma associated with drug use.
Substances abuse has left thousands dead in British Columbia. Its Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson told AFP the province is facing "an overdose crisis that's causing a terrible loss of life."
The pandemic has compounded its impacts, she said, as more and more people "are using drugs alone and often dying alone."
"That tells us people are hiding their addiction from family and friends and are not talking to their primary health care provider about treatment options," she said.
In Ottawa, her federal counterpart Carolyn Bennett is still considering the decriminalization request, her office said.
But in an interview with public broadcaster CBC after a visit to Vancouver drug treatment sites, Bennett said decriminalization in British Columbia may provide "a very good template" for the rest of Canada.
Lametti meanwhile told a news conference his bill "can help individuals dealing with addictions to get the treatment they need and avoid falling into a cycle of criminality."
'A step towards being real'
An estimated six British Columbians die each day from opioid-related drug poisoning, and roughly 8,000 have died since the province's chief public health officer, Bonnie Henry, declared the situation a public health emergency in 2016.
From January to July, 1,200 people died of overdoses, an increase of 28 percent over the same period last year, according to the British Columbia Coroners Service.
In addition to upping treatment and recovery services, British Columbia has asked Health Canada for an exemption to allow people 19 years or older to legally carry up to 4.5 grams of drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, crack and cocaine without risking arrest.
"While the illicit drug poisoning crisis affects all, people with substance use disorders -– a recognized disability — are disproportionately affected," the application states.
"All levels of government therefore have an obligation to minimize the mortality and morbidity risks of their policies and to not exacerbate any pre-existing inequities."
If the measure is approved, people caught with less than this amount would be given information on how to access local health and social services.
Most Canadians think it's a step in the right direction, according to an Angus Reid survey released last February that found 59 percent of Canadians support decriminalization of small amounts of drugs, a number that rises to 66 percent in British Columbia.
"It's good that they're finally doing something," Dave LeBlanc, a 35-year-old Metis man waiting in the rain outside Canada's first sanctioned safe injection site in Vancouver to shoot heroin he purchased off the street, told AFP.
"But it's not really going to be enough."
Garth Mullins, a journalist and former heroin user who helped craft the province's submission through his advocacy work, explained that "some people have very big (drug) habits."
He said the proposal is "a step towards being real" but he would also like to see safe supplies of drugs prescribed to addicts who must now rely on street drugs of unknown provenance, and may commit property crimes to pay for them.
Jacqueline Cousley, an opioid user and volunteer at the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver, agrees.
"It'd be great if they'd just legalize it entirely so people wouldn't have to worry about what kind of (toxic substance) is in there," she said.