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'The whole idea is to keep people alive': Maritime drug addiction experts hope to follow B.C.'s decriminalization lead


Maritime addiction experts hope British Columbia’s move to decriminalize hard drugs will extend east.

Sharon MacKenzie of Sydney, N.S., says it would’ve been difficult to imagine British Columbia's landmark decision at the beginning of her career in addictions and mental health almost 30 years ago.

“I’m hopeful we will get on board with it,” says MacKenzie, who is a street nurse at the Ally Centre of Cape Breton. “I think we’re very close to embracing this.”

On Tuesday, British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow people aged 18 and older to legally possess a combined 2.5 grams of illegal drugs, including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA.

Federal Addictions and Mental Health Minister Carolyn Bennett says British Columbia’s exemption is “a monumental shift in drug policy that favours fostering trust and supportive relationships in health and social services over further criminalization.”

The British Columbia exemption is part of a three-year pilot project.

The health departments in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island each say they’re monitoring British Columbia’s project results.

“I don’t think we have to sit back and watch British Columbia until the end of this pilot or demonstration project,” says MacKenzie. “I think we need to get on board.”

Julie Dingwell, the executive director of Avenue B Harm Reduction in Saint John, N.B., agrees, and is watching to see if other jurisdictions follow British Columbia’s lead.

“Toronto is applying for a license to do the same. I think this could work right across the country,” says Dingwell. “I think B.C. was pretty brave stepping out first. But they usually are, around issues of harm reduction.”

North America’s first sanctioned supervised injection facility opened 20 years ago in Vancouver.

New Brunswick’s first overdose prevention site, ENSEMBLE Services Greater Moncton, opened in late 2021.

First responders around the region are answering multiple drug-related emergency calls daily, including three overdose calls within two hours at a Moncton church in late December.

The Saint John Police Force says emergency calls related to drug overdoses increased nearly 40 per cent in 2022, compared to 2021.

In April, Saint John police issued a warning about Carfentanil -- an opioid drug meant to immobilize large animals -- potentially circulating in the community.

“I think we’re talking about addictions more, and that’s a good thing,” says Dingwell. “As we talk more about addictions and learn more about why it happens to many people, I think we’ll be more creative in trying to find the solutions that keep people alive.”

“The whole idea is to keep people alive, it isn’t about anything else.”

With files from CTV Vancouver Top Stories

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