Residents rally for changes to national drug policy

As the debate over a safe-injection site in Ottawa rages at the municipal level, the battle for drug policy reform was brought to the federal government’s front door recently when demonstrators from across Canada gathered at Parliament Hill on Sept. 30.

The first annual FED UP! rally was organized by Donna May, founder of Jac’s Voice, a foundation devoted to spreading awareness about addiction and mental illness, named after May’s daughter, who died  two years ago from a disease related to her addiction. 

May says the rally sought to raise awareness and gain support for changes to Canadian drug policy, which she says is outdated.

“It needs a whole reform, it needs to be looked at by today’s standards,” she says. 

May is arguing for a health-based approach to drug policy, rather than a criminal approach. Donald MacPherson, a speaker at the rally and executive director of the Vancouver-based Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, agrees.

“The world is changing,” he says. “Canada is out of step with the movement towards the public health approach that we are seeing elsewhere in this hemisphere.”

MacPherson says the current federal drug policy is “very old school.”

“I think the federal government has taken a punitive approach,” he says. “They’ve stigmatized the people (drug users), but they’ve also stigmatized the services.”

Sean LeBlanc, another speaker at the rally and chairperson of Ottawa’s Drug Users Advocacy League, says the issue is one that locals should be paying attention to.

“It affects all people on all levels,” he says. He called the policies “harmful, not only to people that use drugs, but they’re also harmful for our community members.”

LeBlanc, like many others at the event, is involved in the fight for a supervised injection site in Ottawa, modelled on Vancouver’s Insite service, Canada’s only supervised injection site. 

The rally itself marked the third anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2011 decision to support the site.

In Centretown, politicians are already embroiled in the discussion in the lead up to the Oct. 27 election, with Somerset Ward candidates having debated the issue in September. 

But a controversial bill is making its way through Parliament that could cripple efforts to establish a site in Ottawa. Bill C-2 was on the minds of many demonstrators who say the evidence in favour of a site already exists. 

“We’ve voiced our strong opposition to this bill,” says Marilou Gagnon, expert adviser in policy research and advocacy for the Canadian Association of Nurses in HIV/AIDS Care. “As nurses, we have a professional responsibility to base our practice on evidence, so we expect the same thing for policy in our country.”

Gagnon, like MacPherson, criticizes current drug policy as “ideologically driven,” and limiting access to “essential services” for drug users.

Julie Paradis, an Ottawa mother, brought her children, ages eight and 11.

“It’s making our children aware,” she says.

May says this is just the beginning of the conversation she has been fighting to have for the two years since her daughter’s death.

“But there’s hope,” she told those at the rally. “We have listeners. The conversation is started . . .  so keep talking.”

By Aidan Geary
Source: Centertown News