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A memorial for a person named Karen W. is seen outside a building in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Feb. 10, 2021.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The numbers are staggering.

Since 2016, more than 17,000 Canadians have died from a drug overdose. In B.C., the epicentre of the crisis, 6,733 people have left us this way since the province declared the situation a public-health emergency five years ago. That includes 1,716 in 2020 alone, a 74 per cent increase over the previous year.

More British Columbians are dying from drug overdoses – on average about 4.7 a day – than from suicides, homicides, car accidents and prescription-drug related deaths combined.

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You probably already knew that Canada has long been experiencing a pandemic of drug-overdose deaths. But let’s face it: It’s also been a crisis that not enough people care about, including our politicians.

Oh, they always say how devastating the situation is, how heartbreaking it is. But actually taking action on measures being endorsed by public-health specialists that would help mitigate the problem? Well, that’s just a bridge too far.

That’s shameful.

But if there’s one thing you can say about the people who truly care about the poor souls who have lost their lives or are on the verge of losing them, it’s this: They don’t give up easily, even when it would have been tempting to.

Next week, the City of Vancouver will formally submit a request to the federal government seeking an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which would allow for the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs. That would include cocaine, heroin, you name it. They are the drugs from which people are dying, often because they are laced with deadly supplements such as fentanyl.

The B.C. government is also preparing the same type of application for the entire province, but the City of Vancouver decided it couldn’t wait for the provincial NDP to get its act together, so they’re going it alone.

Calls for decriminalization have been around forever, although the sense of urgency that have enveloped them has grown dramatically in the past few years as overdose deaths have climbed to even more tragic heights.

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There are few, if any, public-health experts in the world who don’t believe that decriminalization is an important step in this battle; B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry has called for it, among others. It would reduce the stigma that surrounds drug use and remove the fear of criminal sanctions, which often act as impediments from seeking services that can save lives.

No single initiative is going to end the problem, and it will likely never be eradicated completely. But decriminalization is an important element of the suite of measures needed to minimize the carnage.

So, too, is ensuring there is a safe drug supply for addicts. I realize that this remains anathema to many. For decades, the police hated the idea. But over the years they have seen the futility of our own war on drugs; it hasn’t worked, and it was never going to work. It just drove the problem further underground and ensured it got worse.

Now the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs are on board with decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs. In fact, the association concedes there already is de facto decriminalization in B.C. as most police won’t recommend charges to prosecute for drug possession unless there are circumstances that involve a threat to public safety.

And yet, governments in Ottawa over the years have refused to budge on the issue.

This seems particularly galling at this moment, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout it, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gone out of his way to point out that the government’s response to the emergency will be guided “by the science,” and by what the public-health community is telling him about the best path forward. And that’s great. We applaud him.

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But then why refuse to listen to the science when it comes to the other pandemic in this country? Because of cheap politics?

Mr. Trudeau has said in the past that decriminalization is not a panacea, not a “silver bullet.” No one has suggested it is. But every expert who has spent time studying this problem insists it will help, that it’s an important piece of the new approach we must take to start driving our numbers down – to start flattening the curve.

There would be absolutely no harm in Ottawa granting Vancouver an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act even on a temporary basis, over a defined period of time.

What does the federal government have to lose, except more lives?

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