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Vancouver's top doctor to Trudeau: Decriminalize all illicit drugs, now

Amid a deadly overdose crisis, Dr. Patricia Daly says decriminalization is the only real solution.

Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer and Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, speak about B.C.'s overdose opioid crisis in December 2016

Jen St. Denis/Metro

Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer and Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, speak about B.C.'s overdose opioid crisis in December 2016

When Vancouver’s chief medical health officer meets with the Prime Minister later this afternoon to discuss the deadly overdose crisis, she will push to decriminalize all illicit drugs as the only real solution to the mounting death toll.

Daly praised the federal government for supporting overdose prevention sites and making it easier to prescribe prescription heroin. But:

“What I really want to see, and this government may not be ready to go here yet, is that I think that we need to decriminalize all illicit drugs quite urgently because this crisis is a crisis of a contaminated illicit drug supply,” Patricia Daly told Metro in a telephone interview the day before the March 3 meeting in Vancouver.

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Daly wasn’t invited to a roundtable with first responders and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this morning, but she will meet with him later this afternoon when he visits Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, which has been ground zero for the overdose crisis in this city.

Daly clarified she was not talking about creating a legal market for illicit drugs like heroin, but “a regulatory approach that means essentially legalizing all psychoactive substances but strictly controlling their distribution.”

The overdose death rate has shot up because the entire illicit drug supply has become contaminated with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, and even more potent variations of the drug, such as carfentanil.

Coupled with increased access to doctor-controlled programs such as prescription heroin or hydromorphone, decriminalizing all illicit drugs would reduce the stigma that pushes many drug users to use alone, where no one can come to their aid should they overdose, Daly said.

But the money currently spent on enforcement could also be redirected to social programs to reduce poverty, homelessness and childhood neglect — the “social determinants of health” which are the root causes of addiction, Daly said.

She pointed to Portugal’s model of decriminalization and reinvestment in programs to address those root causes.

“They found when they coupled decriminalization with investments in some of those social determinants they saw a decrease in drug use,” Daly said.

“So I would say: start now, decriminalize all drugs and begin the discussion about a regulatory approach to all psychoactive substances. Just as the government’s done with marijuana we need to start doing that with all drugs.”

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