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To fight the opioid crisis, Canada tests decriminalizing possession

TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Laurent VU THE, Canada-society-drugs-health
Addicts inject themselves at the Insite supervised injection Center in Vancouver, Canada, on May 3, 2011. The Canadian Supreme Court is to settle a conflict between the government's wishes to close the center and the center's success in fighting the spread of AIDS among drug addicts. In eight years of existence, and with more 600 visits per day on average, Insite believes it has made advances in the fight against AIDS. And in a radius of 500 meters around the center, deaths by overdose dropped by 35 percent since the opening, according to a study published in the medical newspaper The Lancet.    AFP PHOTO/Laurent Vu The (Photo by Laurent Vu The / AFP) (Photo by LAURENT VU THE/AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images
s wishes to close the center and the center

In a policy shift aimed at reducing deaths from overdoses, Canada is decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs in the western province of British Columbia.

Drug overdose deaths have risen sharply across Canada over the past five years, with opioid-related deaths linked to fentanyl more than doubling.

British Columbia has been the hardest-hit province— it declared fentanyl a public health crisis six years ago — and provincial officials asked for federal permission to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of opioids, cocaine and methamphetamines.

The experimental policy, which takes effect in January 2023, will last three years.

British Columbia's minister of mental health and addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, says the move will put the focus on health care.

"By decriminalizing people who use drugs, we will break down the stigma that stops people from accessing life-saving support and services," she said in a statement.

In recent years Canada has introduced a number of health care-focused programs for addressing its overdose epidemic, including setting up supervised injection sites, providing tests to check drugs for fentanyl and making heroin available by prescription for those who haven't found success with other treatments.

But overdose deaths spiked at the start of the pandemic and remained high through 2021, according to the latest data available.

The policy change in British Columbia will apply to individuals 18 and older who are in possession of 2.5 grams or less of illicit drugs.

"We are granting this exemption because our government is committed to using all available tools that reduce stigma, substance use harms, and continuing to work with jurisdictions, to save lives and end this crisis," said Carolyn Bennett, Canada's federal minister of mental health and addictions.

In the U.S., voters in the state of Oregon approved a similar policy in 2020, decriminalizing personal use quantities of most illicit drugs under state law. That change was made without approval from the federal government.
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