Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington's Board of Health took a big step forward at Wednesday's meeting, not only reiterating its call for decriminalization of personal drug use, but also calling for access to safe supply in the region.
On Monday, KFL&A Public Health sent out a release stating that the region's Community Drug Strategy Advisory Committee has called on the federal government to decriminalize personal drug use, after previously endorsing a Statement of Support for decriminalization.
The Committee forwarded a petition to the Canadian Government, calling for decriminalization of personal possession, further support for provinces as they try to address the drug poisoning crisis, and creating a dedicated stakeholder-advised Standing Committee to respond to Canada’s drug poisoning crisis that supports harm reduction, prevention and treatment options.
In the release, local Medical Officer of Health Dr. Piotr Oglaza said it's clear that it's time for a new approach in dealing with this crisis.
“Decriminalization is an evidence-informed approach to reducing the harms associated with substance use. In the KFL&A region and across Canada we continue to see drug poisoning deaths rise with no sign of slowing down,” said Dr. Oglaza.
“It is time to try a new approach, consistently applied throughout the country, that prioritizes the health and well being of people who use substances. Let’s work together as governments and communities to advance this new approach to save lives.”
Justine McIsaac, Consumption Treatment Services Coordinator at the Integrated Care Hub, says this step is a positive one, but is long overdue and doesn't go far enough.
She says Kingston should have long ago looked for an exemption to the federal drug laws, much like Toronto and Vancouver have done.
"If we were to do it municipally it's just making a statement basically saying, you know, we're not willing to criminalize, demonize and stigmatize people that use substances anymore," McIsaac said.
"Which we should have done at the beginning of the drug catastrophe. Because now we're in a housing crisis, a global pandemic and a drug poisoning crisis."
On Tuesday, before KFL&A's Board of Health meeting, McIsaac said although she was encouraged by the Committee's calls for decriminalization, that the region needed to take further steps.
She said that decriminalization needs to be paired with safe supply, or people are still going to die from the poisoned drug supply.
Just two weeks ago, public health sent out a notice warning residents of an increased risk of drug overdoses, pleading with residents to never use alone.
However according to advocates, the existing drug laws essentially encourage addicts to use in unsafe conditions.
Now with Wednesday's Board of Health motion, McIsaac and other drug use experts are hopeful the region is finally moving in the right direction.
McIsaac says that Kingston has missed its opportunity to be a leader in this regard, and that the framework has already been laid out for this community to start saving lives.
"We're talking about decriminalization in the sense that like we're the first people to ever do it, we're not the first people to ever do it or attempt to do it," McIsaac said.
"We don't even have to reinvent the wheel... what needs to be done is we need not worry about what society's general views are going to be initially. It shouldn't matter, we're talking about people's lives here because once people see the results of what decriminalization and safe supply have done, people will not want to go back to the old ways."
She points to Portugal as a shining example of successful implementation of decriminalization and safe supply, following an evidence based approach in 2000 when roughly 1% of their population became addicted to heroin.
Since enacting new policies, the country has dropped well below average drug-related deaths and drug-related prison sentences.
On Tuesday, McIsaac said the step taken by the Committee was certainly encouraging.
She added, however, that with both Kingston City Council and the Board of Health unanimously endorsing decriminalization over the last few years, the time for talk has long passed.
"It needs to happen quicker because people are still continuing to die," McIsaac said.
"We had seven deaths in the first thirteen days of April... on top of countless overdoses. People are dying while they keep talking so we need action now."
Advocates want to see the money spent policing drugs redistributed into supports for people suffering from addiction.
In 2020, even the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs called for decriminalization of personal drug use, recommending that "Canada's enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system."
McIsaac said that after the Board of Health Meeting, she's happy to see the community taking a significant positive step.
"This is what people deserve, people looking out for their best interests and not caring about the stigma and judgment that people have towards people who use substances," McIsaac said.
"It says we as community care, we see you, we hear you and we are going to do better!"
She added, however, "what took so long?"
Story by Owen Fullerton, YGK News, for the Local Journalism Initiative