As Vancouver breaks new ground in the decriminalization of drug use, one Yellowknife MLA is urging the NWT to follow its example.
Last week, Vancouver City Council unanimously voted to request exemption from Canadian drug laws after declaring an opioid crisis. If granted, the exemption would allow the city to legalize possession of illicit drugs for personal use – the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so.
That plan has drawn praise from some activists, policy experts, and medical professionals.
Responding to the news on Twitter, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said the NWT was “fighting a crack epidemic and losing terribly.”
He suggested decriminalization could be the way forward.
“Drug supply lines didn’t even flinch during Covid,” his tweet read. “Seems we’re more likely to run out of food and toilet paper before crack.
“Time to recognise addictions as a public health issue and not a criminal one.”
In a later interview with Cabin Radio, Johnson backed away from his use of the word “epidemic” but maintained the use of crack cocaine has been a problem in the territory for decades.
“Crack use has been consistently rising in the territory and we have an addictions problem,” he said.
“There’s just so much stigma around drug abuse. The amount of crack, it’s been consistently expanding into more and more communities.
“People are justing starting to really even be comfortable talking about the problem.”
Portugal, Vancouver examples
According to a 2012 report, 11 percent of NWT residents aged 15 and over reported using cocaine in their lifetime. In a similar survey in 2018, that number rose to 16 percent.
Decriminalization has long been touted as a solution to drug use’s social harms, like deaths, hospitalizations, and transmission of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.
Advocates argue it saves money spent on investigations, arrests, and imprisonment, while reducing the stigma attached to drug use and encourage those struggling with addiction to seek treatment.
Portugal, a prominent example of drug decriminalization, removed criminal offences related to drug use from its laws in 2001, instead administering fines and warnings.
By 2017, the country’s drug-induced death rate was five times lower than the European Union average. Portugal’s rate of HIV transmission in 2015 stood at 4.2 new cases per million, down from a high of 104.2 per million in 2000.
Both Portugal and Vancouver can serve as examples for the NWT, Johnson said.
“Everywhere should be doing this,” he said, “but there’s no appetite from the federal government to have meaningful decriminalization conversation.
“It falls on other orders of government to step up and say that the criminal justice system is costing us too much money, it’s costing us too many lives, and it just doesn’t work.”
In September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the CBC he has no plan to pursue nationwide decriminalization of drug use, although a “Good Samaritan” law ensures people can call for help at the scene of an overdose without fear of prosecution.
Decriminalization ‘always on the radar’
The NWT’s deputy chief public health officer, Andy Delli Pizzi, told Cabin Radio current statistics on crack cocaine use in the territory don’t suggest an “epidemic” and therefore don’t justify decriminalization at this time.
“When we look at all things together, we know that it’s a problem,” he said. “We know that use is increasing in the NWT and in Canada, as well – but we wouldn’t call it an epidemic. There hasn’t been a sudden increase in the NWT.”
According to Delli Pizzi, cocaine use accounted for about seven percent of emergency-room visits related to substance use between April and September 2020. Alcohol and alcohol withdrawal represented between 70 and 75 percent.
Given those statistics, decriminalization of illicit drugs isn’t a priority, Delli Pizzi said, but – if the situation worsens – it could be considered.
“Decriminalization is something we can always keep on our radar and watch what other jurisdictions are doing and think about,” Delli Pizzi said, “but for right now, the NWT really is focusing on preventing harms from alcohol.”
The territory cannot change criminal laws related to drug use without permission from the federal government.
Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act grants the federal health minister the right to issue exemptions from any part of the legislation “for a medical or scientific purpose or [a purpose] otherwise in the public interest.”
In an email to Cabin Radio, the NWT’s Department of Justice said no such request is currently being pursued.
Delli Pizzi said a needle exchange program, counselling services, and options for addictions treatment are available in the NWT. Some organizations, such as the Yellowknife Women’s Society, also distribute safe crack kits, which provide users with sterile drug use equipment to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases.
Delli Pizzi warned that during the pandemic, his staff are “especially concerned [that] routine drug supplies can be disrupted and there might be a higher risk of contaminants in drugs.”
He said residents “shouldn’t be afraid to call for help if they witness an overdose.”
Johnson said he will continue to advocate for decriminalization within the Legislative Assembly.
“This needs to be a conversation that we’re having,” he said.
“Decriminalization does not solve addictions, but it allows people who are suffering from addictions to be able to talk without fear of being arrested.”