Halt drug possession charges during pandemic to stem spike in overdose deaths, advocates say

More than 50 human rights, drug and legal policy groups are pressuring the federal government to suspend criminal charges for simple drug possession as part of its response to COVID-19, arguing that the pandemic led to drug use practices more dangerous and an increase in overdose deaths.

In a letter to Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Public Security Minister Bill Blair and Justice Minister David Lametti, the organizations say COVID-19 has forced supervised drinking venues and safe needle programs to close or shorten its schedule.

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Additional policing on the streets to enforce pandemic public health measures has also increased fear of imprisonment, causing many drug users to forego safety precautions or consume on their own.

"Increased police surveillance in the context of the pandemic makes it even more difficult to access vital health services and the ability to use drugs safely, in addition to increasing the risk of arrest and detention," the letter says.

"It is not surprising that some cities are already seeing reports of increasing deaths from overdose since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic."

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Organizations report that the situation is also increasing the risk of HIV and hepatitis C infections among intravenous drug users at a time when Canada is already facing another public health emergency – the opioid crisis.

Between January 2016 and September 2019, there were about 14,700 opioid-related deaths across the country.

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Cities that report overdose spikes

Many cities, including Toronto, are reporting an increase in suspected overdoses and deaths in the months of March and April of this year, after the general closure of companies and support services, in response to the pandemic.

The groups that signed the letter – which include Amnesty International, the Canadian Nurses Association, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Criminal Lawyers Association – say the Drugs and Controlled Substances Act gives the federal health minister the authority to issue an exemption on criminal charges "on the basis that it is necessary for medical or scientific purposes or is otherwise in the public interest".

In 2015, the government granted exemptions for supervised consumer services using the same section of the act.

The groups say the federal cabinet can also issue a directive.

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Proponents of harm reduction have been lobbying federal authorities to decriminalize simple drug possession for years, arguing that this measure would offer major public health benefits while presenting little risk to public security.

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"We wanted (the government) to decriminalize simple drug possession more broadly, but we think there is now even more urgency due to the increase in deaths," said Sandra Ka Hon Chu, director of research and advocacy for the HIV / AIDS Legal Department. from Canada. Network.

"The fact that people who use drugs are more often in public spaces means that they are more vulnerable to police surveillance, harassment or potential detention. And the last place we want them to be right now is detention."

Limit the spread in jails, prisons

Ka Hon Chu said it would make little sense to put drug users in prison when provincial and federal prisons are taking steps to depopulate to limit the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

The confined environment in detention – coupled with the fact that many incarcerated people have chronic health conditions – has led many to warn that the virus can spread quickly behind bars and lead to severe symptoms.

People who use drugs, especially those who are homeless or have poor housing arrangements, are more likely to have the kind of chronic health problems that make them prone to developing severe symptoms if they are infected with the virus, the groups say.

An expert in the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement last month describing the additional risks that people who use drugs face during the pandemic. He said the COVID-19 crisis requires countries to take "extraordinary measures" to protect their health.

"To prevent unnecessary entry of prisoners and unsafe drug use practices, the moratorium must be considered in compliance with laws that criminalize the use and possession of drugs," says the April 16 statement.

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