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Health advocates in Ottawa watching B.C. drug decriminalization closely


British Columbia is taking a new approach to address the opioid crisis by decriminalizing small amounts of certain illicit drugs for personal use.

As part of a first-in-Canada pilot project, people aged 18 and older can legally possess a combined 2.5 grams of illegal drugs, including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.

Last May, the federal government granted B.C. an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Under it, adults will no longer be arrested, criminally charged or have their drugs seized if they're found carrying a small amount for personal use. B.C. had originally requested a threshold of 4.5 grams, but the federal government said it decided on a lower amount after speaking with law enforcement agencies.

Health advocates in Ottawa say they're watching the move closely.

"I think that decriminalization is the right move," said Rob Boyd, CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health.

"I think that it should have been done a long time ago, but we really need to look seriously at our overall drug policy in Canada. But if you’re looking for some immediate impacts, in terms of what’s happening on the streets here in Ottawa, you really need to look at access to legalized, regulated drugs for people who are in need of them."

According to Ottawa Inner City Health, there were 77 drug toxicity deaths in the first six months of 2022. There were 149 deaths in all of 2021, the highest ever recorded and double the pre-pandemic number.

"We have a number of outreach teams who are out on the streets every day, and the word they're using is 'overwhelming,'" says Caroline Cox, the senior manager of harm reduction for the Somerset West Community Health Centre. "The situation was pretty dire before the pandemic, and it’s only gotten worse."

Cox too, says that decriminalization is a step in the right direction, but access to a regulated supply is part of the solution.

"What we currently have, with some safer-supply pilots, is prescription of medical-grade stimulants and opiates," she said. "So, it’s very much safe, regulated, prescribed by a physician at a level that is safe, clinically, for the patient and reduces their dependence on street drugs."

More than 10,000 British Columbians have died from illicit drug overdoses since a public health emergency was first declared in 2016.

In Ottawa, Boyd said there were 127 drug toxicity deaths in 2020 and 65 in 2019.

--With files from CTV News Vancouver Top Stories

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