Overdose-death protests across Canada to target prohibition and police red zones

One of the largest demonstrations to march through the Downtown Eastside in recent years occurred in February 2017, when hundreds of people called for government action on overdose deaths.

The crowd was motivated by an unprecedented number of fatal overdoses, from 518 in 2015 to 993 in 2016. Since then, the climb has continued, to 1,422 last year.

Jordan Westfall, president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), told the Straight that organizers expect an even bigger turnout this Tuesday (February 20).

“The last few years, thousands of people have died of an overdose,” he said in a telephone interview. “We tackled the pubic-health aspect of that last year with the national day of action. This year, we want to change the focus to the Ministry of Justice.”

Specifically, Westfall said that drug users are calling for decriminalization: for the federal government to remove criminal penalties for the personal possession of all illegal narcotics.

“Criminalization impacts every aspect of a person using drugs,” he said. “Criminalization pushes people into the shadows, into the darkness, where they don’t disclose their drug use.…It makes it much more difficult to access services.”

The idea might once have sounded impossibly radical. But last September, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal NDP, said his party supports decriminalization because members believe it will help reduce overdose deaths. Then, on February 2, Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway, formally raised the proposal in the House of Commons and asked the Liberals: “When will this government abandon the failed war on drugs and adopt a health-based approach to addiction and drug use?”

Decriminalization likely won’t come before a change in government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said his government will not discuss the idea.

In the immediate term, Westfall said demonstrators will also call for an end to so-called red-zoning, a term that refers to when someone has been charged with an offence and not yet convicted but is released with strict rules about where they are not allowed to travel.

An October 2017 study by researchers with Simon Fraser University and the University of Ottawa found that red-zoning often equates to a denial of social services.

“It becomes much harder for them to access important resources, which can include things like Insite,” SFU’s Nick Blomley told the Straight then. “We’ve found people being excluded from safe-injection sites, making it harder for them to access clean needles, which then places them in greater risk of negative health outcomes.”

Westfall argued that in the middle of an overdose epidemic, red zones are killing people. He said people participating in the national day of action are therefore asked to wear red on February 20. “In Ottawa, they’re going to wear red to the attorney general’s office, the minister of justice’s office, and red-zone it,” he added.

Shelda Kaston is a board member with the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS). She repeated Westfall’s call for justice reform and emphasized the extent to which Indigenous woman are especially affected by B.C.’s overdose crisis and the continued criminalization of drugs.

An August 2017 analysis by the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) found that while Indigenous people only make up 3.4 percent of B.C.’s population, they account for 10 percent of overdose deaths. Indigenous women are disproportionately affected. The report states they are eight times more likely to overdose and five times more likely to suffer a fatal overdose compared to non-Indigenes women.

Kaston said that WAHRS has begun dispatching alley patrols around the Downtown Eastside aimed specifically at delivering overdose-response services to Indigenous woman.

“We want to go check on our young girls,” she said.

Vancouver’s march for Canada’s national day of action on overdose deaths will begin on February 20 at 12:30 p.m. at Victory Square (West Hastings and Cambie streets). Ralliesare also planned for Victoria, Prince George, and, across Canada, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.

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