Illegal drugs should be decriminalized, say members of the Region of Waterloo Crime Prevention Council

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WATERLOO REGION – Major changes need to be made to the justice, police and local government systems to help reduce the harm caused by drug use and drug poisoning, say members of the Region of Waterloo Crime Prevention Council .

Members made their comments Wednesday during a webinar on the council’s endorsement of the legalization of all drugs, with strict regulation.

All drugs should be treated the same as marijuana, tobacco and alcohol, according to the council.

“The issue is so much more complex than our government has led us to believe,” said Sara Escobar, outreach worker.

“They simplified it and simplified it so they could make easy choices…why people use drugs is so complex, and it can’t just be defined by ‘you use drugs, that’s illegal, you go to jail'”.

Those who work with the region’s most vulnerable say the region is in a health crisis of drug abuse and poisoning that cannot be ignored.

Locally, drug poisoning deaths have increased from 105 in 2019 to 145 in 2020 and 158 last year.

“It’s still a crisis with no adults in charge, that hasn’t changed,” said drug strategist Michael Parkinson. “There’s not the same type of leadership or commensurate response that we would see with COVID, H1N1, SARS, food security and all that stuff despite the cost, human and financial.”

Speakers said a recent proposal by the Region of Waterloo to create a street outreach team including paramedics to deal with encampments failed to take into account the relationship that exists between homeless people and drug addicts and people in uniform.

The region withdrew the report for further consultation.

“For many people who use substances, perhaps living in encampments, there is a history of trauma, abuse, neglect and little trust in people who wear uniforms,” Parkinson said.

Research by the Crime Prevention Council has shown that people prefer to use drugs alone, even though it is more dangerous, or not to call the police when they witness an overdose because they have fear.

People who use drugs are also much more likely to be victimized and much less likely to report it, according to a Prevention Council study. Participants in a 2020 survey said satisfying their addiction made them more vulnerable to violence or sex trafficking. Of the 43 people interviewed, 91% had been victims.

Eighty-six percent of these crimes went unreported.

This stems from the criminalization of drug use.

“That means everything they do all day is criminal, that’s all they are, that’s all people see…that’s not how you help people heal,” Escobar said.

Ruth Cameron is executive director of the AIDS Association of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (AACKWA).

Cameron said the region’s proposal to fund the outreach team from its equity account rather than homelessness and housing budgets pits grassroots organizations against each other.

“In reaching the equity fund, what is actually happening is opposition from all the different equity seeking groups and the issues they face, which are not part and parcel of the community but were created by white supremacy, against each other and it’s the opposite of equity,” Cameron said.

Part of the argument for legalization and regulation is that 100 years of prohibition has proven ineffective. Sending people to jail hasn’t stopped them from using drugs. The 2020 survey showed the average number of incarcerations was 12.

The Waterloo region has the sixth highest rate of opioid-related offenses in Canada and the second highest in Ontario, according to a February report to the prevention council. Most of them are for possession.

“These carceral approaches where the police lead or are at the table of every collaboration, coalition or social, community and health service intervention in our region and carceral approaches … are not the way forward to promote safety, the equity and solidarity for people who use substances,” said Cameron.

Jude Oudshoorn said the war on drugs has truly been a war on people that disproportionately impacts black people, Indigenous people and people of color.

“It’s really important that (people) understand that component, that the harm is endless here and the harm just keeps getting worse,” he said.

He described research showing that in Ontario, nearly one in 15 black men between the ages of 18 and 34 will be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to one in 71 white men in the same age group.

Twenty-one percent of incarcerated youth are black men and 15 percent are Indigenous, according to the John Howard Society in 2021.

Members of the Crime Prevention Council will appear before Waterloo Region Council this week to discuss approving legalization with tough regulations.

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