MONTREAL -- A motion introduced at city council calls on Mayor Valerie Plante to join other Canadian cities in asking the federal government to decriminalize simple drug possession for personal use.

Federal data shows the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more deaths due to overdose in the first eight months of 2020 than in all of 2019.

This has prompted cities such as Vancouver and Toronto to make a request to the Federal Minister of Health Patty Hajdu to issue an exemption from the federal law criminalizing simple drug possession.

The exemption would fall under an existing provision in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that allows for, as an example, safe injection sites to operate.

“There is no need, nor any excuse, for delay, particularly amid unprecedented overdose death," said Richard Elliott, executive director of the HIV Legal Network.

"With the dual crisis of COVID-19 and overdoses, all the region's organizations, whether they work in prevention or harm reduction, are affected. On behalf of all these groups, we ask the City of Montréal to act quickly. It is not a legal question, it's about health and human rights, it's a matter of life and death," said Sandhia Vadlamudy, executive director of The Association des intervenants en dépendance du Québec.

The motion, introduced by Montreal city councillors Marvin Rotrand and Christian Arsenault, will be debated at the next city council meeting Jan. 25 and 26.

It includes a request that the city ask the SPVM to join the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police who have also called for the decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs.

This past July, the CACP said it’s the best way to battle substance abuse and addiction.

Rotrand, an independent councillor for the Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough, added that the position of the CACP can not be underestimated.

“They said our current approach is a waste of police resources, is ineffective, does not save lives, and does not solve problems of drug trafficking, clogs the courts and costs an enormous amount of money," he said. "For years, public health petitioners have said you need to have a public health approach to addiction, making it a legal approach doesn’t solve a health problem.” 

But is there public support for decriminalization?

Arsenault, who is also an independent city councillor for Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, feels there’s a moral obligation.

“Perhaps one of the questions to ask that really captures the paradigm shift is do we want to judge and criminalize people who have what basically amounts to a health problem, a health problem that is often the consequence, a symptom of other factors like poverty, like trauma," he said. "I think that decriminalization is the first step towards a more compassionate approach to helping people.”