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Canada province decriminalizes hard drugs in new bid to combat opioid crisis

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Ottawa — A Canadian province on Tuesday decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and other hard drugs in a radical policy shift to address an opioid overdose crisis that has killed thousands. Adults found with up to 2.5 grams of these drugs, rather than face jail or fines, will be provided with information on how to access addiction treatment programs.

Police will also not seize their drugs.

Sellers and traffickers of hard drugs, however, will continue to face criminal prosecution during the three-year British Columbia pilot project.

"The situation has never been more urgent," Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett told a news conference on the eve of the new rules taking effect.

"The effects of this public health crisis have devastated communities across British Columbia and across Canada," she said. When the measure was announced last May, she'd suggested it could be expanded to other provinces.

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British Columbia is the epicenter of a crisis that has seen more than 10,000 overdose deaths since it declared a public health emergency in 2016. That represents about six people dying each day from toxic drug poisoning in the province of five million people, topping COVID-19 deaths at the onset of the pandemic.

Nationwide the number of fatalities has topped 30,000.

Officials hope the change in policy will remove the stigma associated with drug use that keeps people from seeking help, and foster the notion that addiction is a health issue.

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Medics with the Vancouver Fire Rescue Services attend to a man who overdosed on drugs in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighborhood, in a May 5, 2022 file photo in Vancouver, British Columbia. Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/Getty

British Columbia's chief public health officer Bonnie Henry said stigma and shame around using drugs "drives people to hide their addictions."

"That means that many people are dying alone," she said.

Kathryn Botchford, whose husband Jason died of a drug overdose in 2019, said she had no idea he'd even been using drugs.

"When I discovered how he died, I thought there must be a mistake. Jason doesn't do drugs. We have three young kids and he knows the risks," she said. "But I was wrong. He died alone using an illegal substance."

Botchford said she initially kept his cause of death secret, even from their children. "His secret became my secret."

But eventually, she said, "I realized that... I was unconsciously creating shame."

243 crosses cover the lot on the south west corner of Brady and Paris Streets as part of Crosses for Change that memorialize victims in the overdose and opioid crisis
Eric sits on his skateboard as he visits the cross that commemorates his girlfriend Jada - one of 243 crosses that cover a lot as part of the Crosses for Change project memorializing victims of the opioid overdose crisis in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, May 9, 2022. Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty

Canada has spent more than Can$800 million (US$600 million) to try to stem the opioid crisis, including on addiction treatment, Naloxone supplies and opening 39 supervised drug consumption sites across Canada.

Bennett pointed to successes such as the more than 42,000 overdoses reversed at safe injection sites, and more than 209,000 individuals referred to health and social services in recent years.

But she acknowledged also "that access to treatment remains a gap" that is being worked on.

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