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B.C. decriminalization will be closely watched in Thunder Bay

Local drug strategy lead says city has no plans yet to seek similar exemption, but will watch B.C.’s experience closely.

THUNDER BAY – As British Columbia takes its first steps toward decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs next year, Thunder Bay will be among the communities closely watching the journey.

Cynthia Olsen, a city staffer who leads the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy, called the federal government’s move to grant B.C. an exemption to certain provisions of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act a significant shift in drug policy, comparing it to the Trudeau government’s earlier legalization of cannabis.

It's a step the city has examined taking itself, and is still set to be discussed by a city council committee.

In B.C., the move will decriminalize possession of up to 2.5 grams of drugs including opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine for those in B.C. starting on Jan. 31, 2023.

The policy is far from a silver bullet when it comes to confronting Canada’s worsening opioid overdose crisis, but could be a potent symbolic move away from criminalizing addiction, Olsen said.

“This is one more step," she said. “It’s not legalization, by any means, but it is decriminalizing people for small amounts of substances they may have on themselves for personal use.”

“It’s a really big shift away from that criminal approach to a public health approach, and recognizing that substance use is a health issue.”

The possibility of the City of Thunder Bay seeking an exemption of its own under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was raised last year in a report prepared by Olsen for the city's Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. 

That report, prepared in response to a push from Coun. Aldo Ruberto to pursue more harm reduction solutions to the overdose crisis, pointed to strong evidence that criminalizing the possession of drugs is ineffective and disproportionately harms Indigenous and Black people.

It also noted decriminalization has won growing public support, including from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

The City of Thunder Bay does not currently have an official policy on drug decriminalization, though Olsen's report also suggests advocating for decriminalization nationally.

In a 2020 meeting with Olsen and police chief Sylvie Hauth, then-Minister of Health and local MP Patty Hajdu confirmed the minister can issue an exemption for municipalities, but suggested they could be challenging to implement without provincial support.

It's a concern Olsen understands.

“I think the challenge at a municipal level is it can then become very piecemeal in a province, and I think that’s why there are a lot of calls for a national approach,” she said. “So maybe this big news in B.C. will potentially set the stage for that.”

Olsen's report has not yet been debated by the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee due to COVID-19 delays, she said. Any decision to seek an exemption would require support of city council, she noted.

Other Ontario municipalities are considering making requests of their own, and will be keeping a close eye on B.C.'s experience when the exemption goes into effect next January.

“I certainly think many communities are going to be diligently watching what happens in B.C.," Olsen said. "There are communities in Ontario and other provinces that have already made calls for federal decriminalization, or are working towards municipal requests for an exemption within the boundaries of their city.”

Larger cities have been leading the push, with Toronto Public Health and the municipality of Vancouver each applying for exemptions under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which the government says are still under review.

Like several parts of Northern Ontario, however, the Thunder Bay district has a far higher rate of opioid-related deaths than Toronto – a trend that’s worsened during the pandemic.

The federal government has stated the main aim of the exemption granted to B.C. is to “save lives.”

Just how effectively the policy will do so isn't certain, however.

Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner, told CBC the policy “is not going to make a significant difference in the short term” in averting fatal overdoses.

The move won’t target the supply of drugs, she said, and criticized the 2.5 gram limit as too low (B.C. had requested 4.5 grams).

“I think that’s what people are going to be looking at, is how much will this impact the opioid crisis,” said Olsen. “The challenge with decriminalization is it’s not doing anything to the illicit drug supply, so we know the toxic drugs are still going to be out there, and they’re still going to impact people who use them."

In the battle to save lives from addiction and a toxic drug supply, Olsen said decriminalization is an exciting step, but the community is still waiting on other proven solutions like safe consumption sites.

“Decriminalization in and of itself is not going to be the thing that’s going to solve the opioid crisis at all,” she said. “We need more treatment, we need more withdrawal management services, more harm reduction services.”