Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Public Health have released the findings from a community consultation on the decriminalization of personal drug use.
The city surveyed members of the community to gauge the willingness for Kingston to apply for a Section 56(1) exemption to the Canadian Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) from the Health Minister, meaning possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use would no longer carry a criminal charge.
The survey found “cautious optimism” towards decriminalization, with generally common agreement that the current punishment approach is ineffective.
Committee Chair Susan Stewart said the biggest takeaways from the consultation are that the community is ready for change when it comes to drug policy, but concerns remain.
“The community is aware of and concerned about the current drug poisoning crisis and that the majority of people are interested in looking at other policy options to criminalizing people who use substances,” Stewart said.
“I would say that that is tempered with some cautious optimism that while there is support, people want to make sure that it’s a balanced approach that doesn’t compromise community safety and well being.”
While the consultation found that the community believes decriminalization shows potential to improve the safety of and reduce stigma around substance use, there are also concerns that it could worsen the drug poisoning crisis and lead to increased drug use.
Stewart says the survey showed that some in the community are still misconstruing decriminalization with legalization, and generally there’s not a consensus whether the same decriminalization policy should be applied to youth.
Candice Christmas, Project Engagement Manager with Support Not Stigma, said despite some remaining concerns there is enough proof showing that the punishment approach to substance use is not working.
She says regardless of system capacity, decriminalization is just a first step that can get people who use substances, especially young people, off of a repetitive, damaging cycle.
“Once people have a criminal record around substance use it also leads to inequitable access to health care and social services due to stigma,” Christmas said.
“So the criminalization process itself around substance use perpetuates substance use… I think there’s enough people in the community who recognize that the criminalization process just doesn’t contribute to increased wellness of people who use substances, so let’s just get on with that one piece.”
Overall 63% of survey respondents support decriminalization efforts and 70% agreed some change to drug policy is needed.
Justine McIsaac, who runs the Consumption Treatment Center at the ICH, said it’s encouraging that people are starting to understand the problem more and that current policy is not helping, but it’s unfortunate that the main reason people are learning more is that the crisis continues to worsen and hit more and more people close to home.
“There’s a 5% increase in in deaths to the previous year and that’s happened every year since this has started,” McIsaac said.
“The need for intervention was in 2012.”
She added that based on the way she’s heard of some ICH clients being treated in the past, she’s pleasantly surprised to see the survey point towards an openness to decriminalization.
“I am surprised just based off of my own experience and working with marginalized vulnerable individuals and the hate that I have experienced myself for the work that I do,” McIsaac said.
“I feel hopeful that our community can turn this around.”
McIsaac says decriminalization could be an encouraging step that will help people, but its effectiveness will be limited without federal decriminalization and safe supply, and the lack of those programs in place could hinder local decriminalization efforts.
It’s important, she says, that in lieu of that federal support the community efficiently redirects resources that would have otherwise been spent on enforcement.
“The resources that we we previously used to criminalize people, how do we ensure we take those resources and adequately use them?” McIsaac said.
Without federal decriminalization, to help a local policy be as effective as possible, McIsaac said the city needs to work to make sure everyone, substance users included, have access to safe, comfortable shelter.
Candice Christmas says even with the homeless population in Kingston almost doubling over the span of a few years, people would be surprised how many more people locally and throughout the country are in dire straits as well.
“I really don’t think people appreciate how many average Canadians are now balancing on the tip of a knife,” Christmas said.
“If we think the homelessness situation is dire now I believe without very radical policies like rent controls, very soon we are going to see exponential growth in the homelessness sector, and we already have in Kingston.”
Moving forward, KFL&A Public Health identifies next steps as in-depth consultations with key sectors, assessing the capacity of health and social services, and learning from other regions – namely BC who decriminalized substances one year ago, but also Toronto who have applied for their own exemption.
While the survey points towards potentially huge change to local drug policy, the process is very much in its infancy, with KFL&A Public Health still yet to consult with Health Canada.