Canadian advocacy group hopeful after Oregon’s vote to decriminalize illicit drugs

Dec 9, 2020

Earlier in November, Oregonians voted in favour of Ballot Measure 110, making Oregon the first jurisdiction in North America to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal use.

Since then, the Canadian advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm has expressed hope that Canada will follow Oregon’s lead and decriminalize the possession of drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine.

The advocacy group provides support to families who have lost loved ones to illicit drug overdoses, and has stated that they would like a similar policy in Canada — or at least B.C. — within a year.

Leslie McBain, the advocacy group member whose son Jordan had died following a lethal overdose in 2014, has told CityNews that witnessing support for this policy in the U.S. is inspiring, and it gives her hope Canada will follow suit.

“This is exactly the right way to go because people who generally are carrying illicit substances are doing so either to keep their addiction at bay, to not get sick, to not go into withdrawal. Or perhaps they have that small amount of drugs for recreational use. The pragmatic thing to do is not make them be criminals, and this is what this bill does,” McBain said.

According to new Oregon legislature, an individual charged with illicit drug possession in Oregon would have the option of paying a $100 fine or attending new “addiction recovery centres” instead of going to trial and facing possible jail time. Notably, the addiction recovery programs offered are funded by millions of dollars of tax revenue from Oregon’s legalized and regulated cannabis industry.

“Decriminalization has another function beyond just keeping people out of the criminal justice system, it takes away the stigma. If you are a person who uses an illicit substance, and you are labelled a criminal, it’s not helpful in any way, shape or form,” added McBain.

Earlier in 2019, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonne Henry had urged the government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, while recommending ways the province could implement this without changes to federal law. In B.C., fatal overdoses have caused more deaths in the first eight months of 2020 than during 2019. Moreover, new overdose-related records were set in spring and summer 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think B.C. is part of the way there but what we hope for in B.C. is that the premier and the ministers will decide that we can make a change to the Police Act, we can have decriminalization at least in B.C. I’m hopeful, I think we’re leaning in that direction,” McBain said. “Watching Oregon is really a good thing and I’m hopeful that we’re going to have a change in that policy quickly, this coming year — that’s my goal.”

While Oregon’s is first in North America to decriminalize possession of illicit drugs, several European countries, including Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland, have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of hard drugs.