Montreal’s director of public health says she wants to follow in the footsteps of British Columbia, which will see the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs next year.
“We want to make sure… to have this tool in our harm reduction strategy for Montreal,” said Dr. Mylène Drouin in an exclusive interview with Radio-Canada.
Just over a week ago, Ottawa announced that British Columbians 18 and older will be able to possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA in the province beginning January 31 of next year.
Drouin said decriminalization is necessary in Montreal because it has a big impact on drug addicts.
Having a criminal record means “they will have difficult access for work, [it] can I have [an] impact on their family, on their income,” she said.
“We believe that [decriminalization] could allow users to use drugs in much safer contexts and avoid all the prejudices associated with legalization.”
British Columbia’s decision is a direct response to an increase in drug overdose deaths in the province throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. British Columbia recorded 2,224 suspected deaths from toxic illicit drug overdoses in 2021 and more than 9,400 since 2016.
The new drug policy means there will be no arrests, charges or seizures for personal possession at or below the 2.5 gram threshold.
Although decriminalization advocates have said this is a step forward, they also say 2.5 grams is far too low, especially when targeting serious drug users.
“We must act quickly”
Drouin said Montreal has seen an almost 25% increase in overdose-related deaths during the pandemic. While numbers have returned to pre-pandemic levels this year, fatal overdoses are still occurring, she said.
Drouin said she didn’t want drug use in the city to get as bad as in British Columbia before taking action.
“We work with the city of Montreal, the [police] and community partners to see what can be done in Montreal,” she said.
But Isabella Fortier, a member of Moms Stop the Harm – a network of Canadian families advocating for decriminalization and a safe supply of drugs – said Drouin’s words about decriminalization come too late and are insufficient.
Fortier lost her 24-year-old daughter to a fentanyl overdose in 2019. She said the stigma around drug use killed her because she felt the need to hide her addiction.
“If she hadn’t been afraid of her problem, she probably would have gone to take drugs at a supervised injection site. If her drugs hadn’t been contaminated, she wouldn’t have died,” he said. she declared.
Fortier said Montreal is looking forward to seeing the results of the BC pilot project in three years to take action.
“We need to act quickly,” she said. “If we don’t move, if we don’t change the laws, if we don’t take concerted and courageous action, it is our loved ones who die.”
Drouin noted that Ottawa is open to receiving further federal exemption requests for decriminalization, although Montreal has not made such a request.
Politics not necessary in Quebec: Prime Minister
Last week, without going into details, Premier François Legault said he did not think the anti-drug policy was necessary in Quebec.
But Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante seemed to disagree. She said last week that the city has always been sensitive to drug users and supported supervised injection sites.
“We have expressed interest in discussing with the federal government [government] because we see people struggling and suffering and we want to put the right tools in place to support those people while ensuring our communities are safe for everyone,” she said.
In the province, there were 339 deaths caused by drug overdoses between January and September 2021. This is less than the number recorded during the same period last year, but it remains above pre-pandemic levels. .
Louis Letellier from St-Just works with CACTUS Montreal which, among its services, offers a supervised injection site for drug users.
He said the situation in Montreal is also alarming, despite lower numbers here than in British Columbia.
“The opioid crisis is also raging in Montreal. Differently, but it’s something we have to deal with every day,” said de St-Just.
He said B.C.’s drug policy is a big step forward for the province, but because overdoses are a national crisis, “we should also have the opportunity to have such an experiment, to start a such an experience here in Montreal”.