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Nearly 2/3 of Kingston residents support drug decriminalization, report finds

The survey by Kingston, Frontenac and Lanark & Addington Public Health contains data from more than 1,800 respondents including people with lived experience with substance use. (Amared Thanapitak/Pond 5 - image credit)
The survey by Kingston, Frontenac and Lanark & Addington Public Health contains data from more than 1,800 respondents including people with lived experience with substance use. (Amared Thanapitak/Pond 5 - image credit)

A new report from the Kingston region's public health unit has found 63 per cent of residents would support decriminalizing drugs, but some have concerns over the potential impact on the community.

Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health (KFL&A) surveyed more than 1,800 people to gauge community support for a decriminalization policy, which so far exists only in British Columbia.

Susan Stewart, director of community health and well-being at KFL&A, told Ontario Morning she wasn't surprised by the results, which she described as "cautious optimism toward decriminalization."

The report points out "decriminalization" is not the same as "legalization." For example, decriminalizing drugs means individuals are not charged for having small amounts for personal use.

By contrast, the report says, legalization means it would be legal to make, possess and sell drugs under a specific set of rules, similar to alcohol or cigarettes.

Under B.C.'s policy, people 18 and older will not be arrested or charged for possessing up to 2.5 grams of illegal drugs for personal use. That includes opioids, methamphetamine and cocaine. That exemption lasts until Jan. 31, 2026.

The KFL&A survey collected responses from people with lived experience. Stewart said there was a "concerted effort" to make sure those voices were heard.

She added that respondents with lived experience described how criminalization creates a "cycle of adversity" where people charged for drug possession struggle to find work or purchase a home due to their criminal record.

King's Town Coun. Gregory Ridge, whose district includes parts of Kingston's urban core, said the results are "encouraging."

In his view, an important piece of decriminalization is removing "that first offence" which can have a cascading impact on people's lives.

"What we're seeing here is that these punitive measures aren't working...." Ridge said. "We need to take a new approach — one that's more compassionate and data-driven."

Shoppers on Princess Street in downtown Kingston, Ont. Photographed Aug. 1, 2021.
Shoppers on Princess Street in downtown Kingston, Ont. Photographed Aug. 1, 2021.

Shoppers walk along Princess Street in downtown Kingston in 2021. The local councillor says the report is encouraging and that punitive measures toward drugs aren't working. (John Last/CBC)

Concerns over community safety

On the flip side, 34 per cent of respondents said they were opposed to decriminalization. Some top concerns include public safety, while others question the effectiveness of using taxpayer money to fund the program.

Stewart said decriminalization models in other parts of the world such as Portugal have led to decreased drug use. "But I would say to the community that their concerns have been heard and we understand their concerns," he added.

Ridge said he's heard similar concerns from his constituents and that he's "not dismissive of them."

"If you have a negative experience with someone who has experienced psychosis as a result of substance use, that's a very frightening thing to happen," he said.

But Ridge also said a holistic perspective is important. Furthermore, he said that in order to tackle the addiction crisis in Ontario, more funding is needed from the province to put toward mental health resources.

Decriminalization isn't enough, advocate says

Nicholas Boyce, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said the survey results reflect how the pubic is realizing that "treating drug use as a health and social issue is a better approach than treating it as a criminal and moral one."

But Boyce said decriminalization "does not address the toxicity of the unregulated drug supply…. If people are still using toxic, poisonous drugs, they're at risk of overdose and death."

Because of this, Boyce said decriminalization should be coupled with "some sort of regulated drug supply."

People gather at a Drug User Liberation Front rally in support of a safe supply of drugs in Vancouver on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.
People gather at a Drug User Liberation Front rally in support of a safe supply of drugs in Vancouver on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

People gather at a rally in support of a safe supply of drugs in Vancouver in 2020. Nicholas Boyce of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition says decriminalization should be paired with a regulated drug supply to address the current drug toxicity crisis. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Boyce also said a "proper decriminalization model" would involve scaling up social supports and moving resources away from law enforcement. That hasn't happened yet in B.C. or other provinces, he said.

"It's time for a real reset...." Boyce said. "While we have a long way to go, moving to a health approach is likely a far better way of addressing this."

Stewart said the report gives the public health unit a barometer for next steps, which include reaching out to social services and the health care sector to understand the impacts of a decriminalization policy.