Montreal’s public health director says she wants to follow in the footsteps of British Columbia, which will see the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs as of next year.
“We want to make sure … that we 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 within the province as of Jan. 31 next year.
Drouin said decriminalization is needed in Montreal as it has an important impact on drug users.
Having a criminal record means “they will have difficult access for work, [it] may have [an] impact on their family, on their revenue,” she said.
“We believe that [decriminalization] could allow consumers to use drugs in much safer contexts and avoid all the prejudice associated with judicialization.”
B.C.’s move is in direct response to a surge in drug overdose deaths in the province throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. B.C. saw 2,224 suspected toxic illicit drug overdose deaths in 2021 and more than 9,400 since 2016.
The new drug policy means that there will be no arrests, charges or seizures for personal possession at or below the 2.5-gram threshold.
While decriminalization advocates have said this is a step forward, they also say 2.5 grams is far too low, particularly when targeting serious drug users.
‘We need to act fast’
Drouin said Montreal saw a near 25 per cent spike in deaths linked to overdoses during the pandemic. While numbers have returned to pre-pandemic levels this year, fatal overdoses are still occurring, she said.
Drouin said she doesn’t want drug use in the city to get as bad as it did in B.C. before acting.
“We’re working with the city of Montreal, the [police] and community partners to look at what can be done in Montreal,” she said.
But Isabella Fortier, a member of Moms Stop the Harm — a network of Canadian families that advocate for decriminalization and a safe supply of drugs— said Drouin’s words concerning decriminalization come too late and fall short.
Fortier lost her 24-year-old daughter to a fentanyl overdose in 2019. She said the stigmatization of using drugs killed her because she felt the need to hide her dependency.
“If she hadn’t been scared of her problem, she’d likely have gone to consume drugs in a supervised injection site. If her drugs hadn’t been contaminated, she wouldn’t be dead,” she said.
Fortier said Montreal can’t wait to see the results of B.C.’s pilot project three years down the line to act.
“We need to act fast,” she said. “If we don’t move, if we don’t change the laws, if we don’t make concerted, brave actions, it’s our loved ones that die.”
Drouin noted that Ottawa is open to receiving other requests for federal exemption for decriminalization, although Montreal has not made such a request.
Policy not needed in Quebec: premier
Last week, without going into further detail, Premier François Legault said he didn’t think the 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 people with drug addictions and has supported supervised injection sites.
“We have shown interest in talking with the federal [government] because we’re seeing people struggling and suffering and we want to put the right tools together to support these people while making sure our communities are safe for everybody,” she said.
In the province, there were 339 deaths caused by drug overdoses between January and September in 2021. This is less than the number recorded during that same period last year but remains above pre-pandemic levels.
Louis Letellier de St-Just is an advocate with CACTUS Montréal 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 B.C.
“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 great move for the province, but because overdoses are a national crisis, “we should also have the opportunity to live such an experience, to start such an experience here in Montreal.”