Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Committee on Drugs Use

Decriminalisation, Depenalisation, Diversion and Legalisation of Drugs: Discussion (Resumed)

7:00 pm

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Three members are physically present in the committee room and the others are online. Senator O’Hara and Deputy Stanton are online.

We are waiting for Mr. Kellen Russoniello. I thank Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Wilson for agreeing to speak with us this evening, though it is obviously not evening in Vancouver. I am waiting for the other witness to join us. I will wait a moment or two. Hopefully we will be joined by Mr. Russoniello. I will suspend the meeting until 7.05 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 7.02 p.m. and resumed at 7.05 p.m.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I wish to advise members and witnesses on privilege. Parliamentary privilege is considered to apply to the utterances of members and anybody participating online in a committee meeting when their participation is within the parliamentary precincts. There can be no assurances in respect of participation online from outside the parliamentary precincts and contributors should be mindful of this when they are contributing.

The topic of our meeting is engagement on decriminalisation, depenalisation, diversion and legalisation, and we are looking at international comparisons. Committee members are interested to learn from the experiences of other countries regarding their drug policies. I welcome our witnesses, who are joining us by MS Teams, Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Wilson of the Vancouver Police Department and Mr. Kellen Russoniello, senior policy council with the Drug Policy Alliance. They are both very welcome. I am glad they had the time to meet with us and we were able to organise a meeting where they could both participate.

I invite Deputy Chief Constable Wilson to give her opening statement.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

I am honoured to share with the Joint Committee on Drugs Use our experience as police leaders with the decriminalisation of illicit drugs in the province of British Columbia, Canada.

On 31 January 2023, a decriminalisation exemption was issued by Health Canada under our Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.. The exemption was part of a three-year pilot that aimed to take a health-led approach to substance use, as opposed to one led by the criminal justice system. It allowed for the personal possession of 2.5 g or less of a variety of illicit drugs, including opioids, cocaine, MDMA and methamphetamines. There were initially six exceptions where the exemption did not apply, including kindergarten to grade 12 schools, daycare facilities and vehicles being operated by a minor. Trafficking and production were and are still unlawful, regardless of amount.

Decriminalisation was initially supported by police in British Columbia because we inherently agreed that criminalising people for what had come to be understood as a health issue, not a criminal justice one, was not effective, helpful or compassionate. Throughout the province, we already had widespread de facto decriminalisation in that police officers rarely sought charges for simple possession, except in exceptional circumstances.

In British Columbia, we know all too well the severity of the toxic death crisis. Since a public health emergency was declared in this province on 14 April 2016, more than 14,000 British Columbians have died from accidental overdoses. Toxic drugs are the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 59, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural disease combined. We averaged seven deaths a day in the province in 2023, where we have a population of just over 5 million people. We know from coroner data that people are dying from fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine in that order. The crisis has had an especially devastating impact on indigenous people, who are six times more likely to be impacted than non-indigenous people.

Having said all that, the implementation of decriminalisation did not occur without criticism or concern. In fact, if I have one warning about decriminalisation, it is this: the devil is in the details. Although everyone may agree that a health-led approach to personal substance use is what is needed, the potential for unintended and unforeseen consequences on people who use drugs and the broader community can not be overstated.

Police leaders clearly identified some of those potential consequences prior to the submission of the exemption request both orally and in writing. These serious concerns included, but were not limited to, the matters of public consumption, consumption in licensed establishments and other semi-public spaces, and driving-related concerns.

However, the implementation of decriminalisation occurred before more fulsome restrictions could be adopted.

While the vast majority of people who use drugs do not want to do so in a manner that negatively impacts others, we had several high-profile instances of problematic drug use at public locations here in British Columbia, BC, including parks, beaches, and around public transit areas. In addition, there were concerns from small businesses about problematic drug use that prevented access by customers or negatively affected operations.

In the wake of failed efforts by the province to enact legislation to address public drug use, police strongly urged the province to have the exemption further limited after hearing continued concerns with public drug use, street disorder and an inability for our officers to lawfully intervene when necessary.

Less than 15 months after the exemption took effect, all personal drug possession in public spaces became prohibited again. In short, decriminalisation in BC was largely rolled back except in very limited circumstances. It is apparent that decriminalisation is only one strategy that must be part of a much broader, multifaceted response. Additional strategies include increased efforts in the areas of education, prevention, treatment and the provision of enhanced health services. While much work is occurring in these areas, it is clear that while decriminalisation was able to come into effect in a relatively short timeframe, these other resources take significantly longer to achieve and implement.

While working towards better health outcomes for people who use drugs, there must also be consideration of the needs and well-being of the broader public. I believe that other jurisdictions that have implemented or considered decriminalisation, only to later abandon it, have done so because of unaddressed and unintended impacts on community safety and well-being. I thank the committee for its time and attention.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Chief Constable Wilson. I now call on our second witness, Mr. Kellen Russonielo, to give his opening statement. I hope I have pronounced his surname properly.

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Yes.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Please go ahead.

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

I am the director of public health for the Drug Policy Alliance, DPA. DPA is the leading organisation in the United States working to end the drug war, repair its harms, and build a non-punitive, equitable, and regulated drug market.

DPA authored Oregon’s ballot measure 110 and spearheaded the campaign to ensure its passage in 2020, making Oregon the first state in the United States to decriminalise possession of small amounts of all drugs. We remained deeply involved in the efforts to faithfully implement measure 110 and defend against efforts to return to the failed system of criminalisation. Unfortunately, after an intense disinformation campaign by measure 110 opponents, politicians voted earlier this year to recriminalise possession. Much of what has been reported has been woefully short on the context necessary to understand what truly happened in Oregon. I hope to provide that context and some lessons learned to the esteemed members of this committee.

It is important to recognize that measure 110 achieved its primary goals. Arrests for drug possession plummeted, resulting in thousands fewer Oregonians saddled with criminal records for low-level possession. Reducing arrests is essential to reducing racial disparities, limiting disruptions in people’s lives, and preventing criminal records that serve as lifelong barriers to jobs, housing, and other services. Measure 110 also resulted in significant increases in a variety of health and social services for people who use drugs, including in areas of the state where these were not previously available. Over $300 million was allocated in the first two years of implementation, resulting in dramatic increases in the number of clients accessing services such as health needs screenings, treatment, peer support services, harm reduction, housing, and supported employment. Measure 110 saved an additional $40 million in criminal legal system costs; funds that were then reallocated to expand services further.

External factors severely complicated measure 110 implementation. The Covid-19 pandemic presented a myriad of challenges, including increased isolation and overdose risk, reduced access to services and increased housing insecurity tied to the end of eviction moratoria. Prior to the pandemic, Oregon had one of the country’s highest rates of homelessness. This has unfortunately only grown worse. The pandemic also contributed to a lack of leadership on measure 110 implementation from state actors whose attention was elsewhere. This resulted in a nine-month delay in the bulk of funding for services being released to service providers.

Another confounding factor was the proliferation of fentanyl in the United State’s west coast’s drug supply beginning in 2019. Overdose deaths have dramatically increased in Oregon and across the western United States, primarily due to fentanyl.

Relentless opposition to measure 110 from police agencies - the street level implementers of measure 110 - was severely problematic. Future decriminalisation efforts should carefully consider the role that police play and focus on expanding health-based outreach teams to engage people who use drugs.

Available research contradicts claims that measure 110 caused or contributed to social harms. Peer-reviewed studies have found no association between fatal overdoses and measure 110. Rather, overdose deaths are a national crisis that has acutely impacted the west coast in recent years due primarily to the arrival of fentanyl. Studies have also found no association between crime rates and measure 110. In fact, the overall crime rates appear to have declined in Oregon. While many are validly concerned with public drug use, this is more directly tied to Oregon’s long-time housing crisis, which has only deepened in the past five years.

Unfortunately, politicians chose to blame measure 110 for problems that resulted from decades of failures to resolve larger structural issues. These problems will not improve with a return to criminalising drug possession. Rather, recriminalisation will further overburden an already overtaxed criminal legal system, disrupt people's lives, and fail to connect people with treatment while siphoning resources that could be used to expand services. The effects of recriminalisation will be felt most harshly in black, brown and indigenous communities.

Decriminalisation is an important component of a public health approach to drugs, but it should not act alone. Communities need more humane and affordable housing and shelter. We also need more services like community-led crisis response teams and overdose prevention centres that connect people to care. Measure 110’s partial repeal does not represent a policy failure but a failure of political will. The movement to replace drug criminalisation with care continues in Oregon and in other areas of the United States.

I thank the committee for its time and look forward to questions.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I thank Mr. Russoniello and will now open the floor to members, who I am sure will have a lot of questions for both witnesses based on their very informative presentations. Does Senator Sherlock wish to go ahead?

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Chair and our two witnesses for attending. I will put my questions to Deputy Chief Constable Wilson first. In terms of the experience in British Columbia, she stated that prior to decriminalisation, police officers rarely sought charges for simple possession. Will she explain the culture within the police force that was part of that situation? I presume there was not a major transition to decriminalisation when it did happen.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

A big difference between British Columbia and what was experienced in Oregon was that the police generally completely agree with the notion of not arresting people and putting them in jail by virtue of their personal drug use. That was our starting point in British Columbia. Everybody agreed with that. In fact, back in 2003 the Vancouver Police Department supported the creation of our first safe injection site in British Columbia, in fact across the country. In 2006, we were the first agency to stop responding to overdose deaths as a matter of routine, recognising that could be a barrier for people to call for help. We have been a leading advocate over the years for treatment on demand and safe supply and so it made sense for us to support decriminalisation, particularly in the wake of the devastating numbers of overdose deaths we were seeing.

When I say we had de facto decriminalisation across the province, I will use Vancouver as an example. In 2022, I believe we had five or six approved charges for simple possession in the city.

When you consider we are a population of about 700,000, and we get 700 to 800 calls for service a day, five or six in a year is very insignificant. What changed with decriminalisation, though, was that because the possession of under 2.5 g of illicit drugs became lawful, our police officers no longer had the authority, as they historically had, to go up to someone who was using in a problematic circumstance in public and say to them, "you need to leave because you cannot use here. If you continue to use here, I may arrest you and there could be consequences to that." When the behaviour became lawful, our police officers lost the authority to do that, which 99.9% of the time is what they would have done historically. That was one of the major failings of decriminalisation here in British Columbia, in my opinion.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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In some ways, it was the problematic consumption of drugs in public spaces that led to decriminalisation. What are the laws with regard to consumption of alcohol in public spaces in British Columbia? Was there a difference between alcohol and drugs or were they the same?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Great question. When decriminalisation happened, because it became lawful to possess, and there were no restrictions on public consumption other than a couple of exceptions in the exemption, it became lawful to use. The use was lawful by virtue of the possession. We have very restrictive conditions under which people can consume alcohol in public spaces. You cannot walk down the street and consume alcohol. You cannot sit on a park bench and consume alcohol for the most part. There are very restrictive parameters around when you can use alcohol in a public space. In the wake of decriminalisation, because public consumption was never addressed, somebody could technically be shooting heroin at a transit bus stop although they could not be consuming a beer lawfully.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank Ms Wilson very much.

To Mr. Russoniello, I am really struck by what he describes as the campaign to reverse measure 110 and the lack of leadership. He might share his reflections on the level of investment or the infrastructure that exists in Oregon with regard to harm reduction and health services. Was that part of why measure 110 was ultimately reversed? I note that he lists other reasons as well but I would be interested to hear about the infrastructure that was in place previously and whether it improved or disimproved after measure 110 was introduced.

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

That is a great question. Before measure 110 passed, Oregon ranked pretty much at the bottom of the United States in terms of access to substance use disorder treatment and mental health services. The only place to go was up after measure 110. In the United States generally, harm reduction does not have very sustainable sources of funding. Generally it is through grants from a variety of sources, and harm reduction service providers are left to their own devices to make sure they make ends meet. Measure 110 represented a transformative shift in how harm reduction was funded in the state of Oregon because it provided the first ongoing state funding for harm reduction and required that harm reduction services be provided in each county through the mechanisms established by measure 110.

Unfortunately we do not really have a sense overall of how the behavioural healthcare system has transformed since measure 110. Data systems are not what we would like them to be and there has not been enough time for that analysis yet. We do know that measure 110 has increased the number of people accessing services in the categories of services it is funding. For example, health needs screenings have increased by 298%; people accessing substance use disorder treatment have increased by 143%; and there have been nearly 300% increases in the number of people accessing housing services and supported employment funded by measure 110. We know these services are expanding what was available and making it available in a more systematic way rather than on an ad hoc basis and in response to grants.

In relation to the overall behavioural healthcare system and how that plays with Medicaid and those types of things, it is probably going to take some time to really figure that out. We do know that the funding and health services aspects of measure 110 were very popular. Even with the recent roll-back of decriminalisation, the legislature did not touch the health services provision because they recognised that they are having important impacts on people's lives.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I thank our two guests for their time and their presentations. They are very interesting. In her opening statement, Ms Wilson spoke about adding three further exemptions. Can she tell us what they were and why they were added?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

There were six exceptions to the exemption in the first instance. As I mentioned, K-12 schools and a few other places were added. There were a few that were a bit more obscure, for example on Canadian coast guard vessels. In an effort to address some of the concerns we were hearing from across the province with respect to public consumption, they added another three exceptions to the exemption. They were playgrounds, splash pads and public swimming pools, and I think the third was around recreational centres. They were generally places where children or youths would be expected to be. There were three exceptions added, meaning that if you were in those locations, you could not rely on the exemption, you could not be in possession lawfully of 2.5 g or less of illicit drugs.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms Wilson. She also stated in her opening statement that the provincial government took steps to enact legislation that restricted public substance use but it was blocked by a court injunction due to concerns that the legislation negatively impacted on the rights of people who use drugs. Could she explain how that is the case? Is that a constitutional right? Is it provided for in legislation? Does it still stand? That is a bit confusing to me.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

The provincial government was working on public consumption legislation that would have further restricted people's ability to use illicit drugs in public spaces. Between Christmas 2023 and new year of 2024, a nurses' organisation that assists people who use drugs applied for an interlocutory injunction in our British Columbia Supreme Court to halt the legislation. The judge, Chief Justice Hinkson, determined that indeed there was an argument that restricting public consumption infringed on the rights of people who use drugs because it put them arguably in more harmful situations because it would drive them indoors. I am being very general here, it was a lengthy decision. It was based on a violation of section 7 of our charter of rights and freedoms. The chief justice determined that the legislation would do more harm than good to the individuals it would be applied to, namely, people who use drugs.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I was in Vancouver last year and I drove through East Hastings Street. It seemed to be a place where a lot of people congregated who were using drugs. Is that a result of the right to use drugs that Ms Wilson has just described? I was wondering how come people were allowed to be in that street. They were obviously using drugs.

I could see them using as I drove past and it seemed to be a very sad situation. Will Ms Wilson tell us about that?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

It is a very sad situation, but the downtown east side has been a place where people who have challenges with mental health and drug use have congregated for many years. It sounds as though when the Deputy drove through, it was during decriminalisation. Officers walk the beat in that area and, historically, they would have walked up to somebody who was using drugs in an open way and told them to knock it off, that they could not do that there and that there was a supervised consumption site across the street, for example. They might have suggested the user head over there if they did not want to be arrested or have their drugs seized, and that was very effective.

In the wake of decriminalisation, as I mentioned earlier, police officers no longer had the authority to do that because with our decriminalisation, there was no ticketing regime and no requirement for an individual to seek pathways to health. It simply meant that the possession of 2.5 g or less was no longer illegal. Our police officers, before they approach individuals, do need to have lawful authority to do so, and if somebody is not engaging in behaviour that is criminal or unlawful in nature, there is no authority for our members to interact with them. It is likely that when the Deputy drove through, he was seeing the results of decriminalisation, where people were able to use on the streets with impunity and not have anyone with any authority being able to move them along.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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If decriminalisation has been rolled back, does that mean the police can now intervene, interact, search people and so on, as was the case previously? How does that square with the court injunction that seemed to suggest people have a right to use drugs?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

The court injunction was not so much that people have a right to use drugs but that the province did not have a right to prevent people from using drugs in the wake of the exemption from Health Canada. The province is the one that requested the exemption in the first instance. We ended up going back to the province and suggesting it advocate for changes to the exemption, and that is what happened recently. All public drug use is now prohibited again. The only places to which the exemption now applies are private residences, places where an individual is lawfully sheltering, or regulated drug-checking sites or overdose-prevention sites. Those are now the only places where the exemption applies. Otherwise, all public drug use is no longer subject to the exemption. That was the major change.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Ms Wilson spoke about unintended consequences, as did Mr. Russoniello. I got the message from both of them, although they might correct me if I am wrong, that it is important to prepare the ground to have the support services in place and to have a strong foundation of support and care in place before moving into the area of decriminalisation. Was that Mr. Russioniello's message?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Yes, ideally, that is what we would want. We want systems in place that are able to respond to the needs of people and then we can move forward with decriminalisation. On the other hand, decriminalisation in itself is a form of harm reduction in that it reduces the harms of arresting and incarcerating people, which decades of evidence show is harmful not only for individuals but for communities as well. Especially in the United States, we were wary of waiting for that system to be set up because we have been waiting for it to be set up for decades. If we continue to say we are just going to wait until we have a perfect behavioural healthcare system that responds to everybody's needs, we will never have decriminalisation. We have to balance the need to move forward with decriminalisation with the need to provide all the services required by both those who use drugs and others in the community.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I thank the two contributors for their presentations. There is a lot to think about. On first listen, people might feel frightened or cautious but it should be taken as an opportunity to look at how to undertake decriminalisation, rather than reasons for not doing it. It is about what remits and regulations should and what service provision needs to coincide with that. It is interesting that we have had prohibition for decades and allowed that to be rolled out in the way we have done, but when decriminalisation is introduced, within two years we are told it has failed and then it is rolled back on. It can be used as a weapon whereby decriminalisation is painted as the cause of all the other ills that exist, but it is important we be really clear about exactly what decriminalisation is and what it intends to do. It will not end the housing crisis or the phenomenon of people with mental health issues congregating in the street. It is about not compounding that.

My first question is for Ms Wilson. In outlining the rowing back on the spaces of exemptions, she named a couple of spaces where the use has not been rolled back. Is a differentiation made between possession and use where a police officer who is walking a beat in the street encounters somebody who is not using publicly but may be in possession. If that person is searched for another reason and is found with, say, less than 2.5 g in their possession but is not using it publicly, will they be arrested for possession if that possession occurs outside of those spaces Ms Wilson named?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

That is a great question and it gets to the heart of what our challenge was in British Columbia. Under Canadian law, it is simply the possession that is unlawful. Our law does not contemplate use. When possession was made lawful, therefore, the use also became lawful and that is what caused significant challenges in our communities. We did have a number of high-profile examples of people who were using in very problematic circumstances, such as smoking crack at a beach next to a family. That family would call 911 and ask for police and we would be forced to say we were sorry but that it was not a police matter.

In the scenario the Senator is talking about, where somebody who is walking down the street is arrested, such as on a warrant, and happens to be in possession, it is very unlikely that person would be charged with possession. As I mentioned, in Vancouver in 2022, the figure was in single digits. I think we had five charges in an entire year for simple possession, so it is very rare. If that person went to jail, we would seize and destroy those drugs, whereas under decriminalisation, in the same scenario, we would have held on to those drugs, assuming it was under 2.5 g and the person was not in an exception to the exemption, and when they were released from jail, we would return the drugs because we recognised that when police seize drugs from people who have a substance use disorder, it can put them in very dangerous circumstances. It can also lead to increased criminality and, in worst-case scenarios, with women particularly but also with men, engagement with the sex trade. We recognised all that. The issue with us here in British Columbia is that our Canadian law does not distinguish between possession and use.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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In practice, I know that Canada has a combination of civil and common law and I would have to compare our drugs Act here with how it would apply in British Columbia, but if the legislation were not an issue, what would be the ideal scenario from a policing perspective? Is it just that open-air use would be regulated in the same way as, say, the alcohol industry, rather than the rowing back in the situation Ms Wilson is talking about? That does not seem to be a preferred option either, but it seems that was something of a legal cul-de-sac.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

I think of two things. Certainly the public use legislation was something we were very supportive of. It was a compassionate solution to the challenges around public consumption because it did not criminalise the use of illicit drugs but criminalised the refusal to leave once you were asked to do so by a police officer. If we came across somebody who was using in problematic circumstances - the beach example - the legislation would require us, as police, to approach that person and ask them to leave. They would leave with their drugs and without a ticket or any kind of documentation. They would just leave. If they refused to leave, that refusal would become a criminal justice matter through our obstruction legislation. I felt that was a compassionate solution to the matter of public consumption.

In addition to public consumption, the other thing we did not see here in British Columbia, but which I think is important, is a dramatic increase in resources for people with substance use disorders. We wanted an increase in everything along that continuum from education to prevention and harm reduction for people who are entrenched in drug use to keep them alive and safe while they are using. We wanted no barriers to treatment on demand that was accessible and available the minute somebody wanted help.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I thank Ms Wilson. I will quickly address Mr. Russoniello. I visited Portland, Oregon, and met some of his colleagues early on. It definitely was not given enough time. Mr. Russoniello mentioned this in his statement but at the time, the funding to increase service provision was not introduced at the same time as the measure was passed. It also seemed that a specific area of downtown Portland saw open-air drug use. Under a model where people are not decriminalised, would I be right in saying that population was mostly institutionalised? It is not that you have new drug users but you have drug users behind closed doors, in different institutions or in prisons. What is happening is that we are having to face the realities of people's lives instead of moving them out of our sight.

What are two other measures that could have helped in that situation besides housing and access to funding in a more appropriate manner? Am I right to say that the police were defunded at a local level around the same time, so there was not much of a police presence? Did the defunding of the police have any impact on the measure at the time? Are there safe consumption sites in Portland? Was anything like that introduced so the population that experiences homelessness or institutionalisation had somewhere to go should they wish to use in more of a care setting?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Oregon does not have any supervised consumption facilities or overdose prevention centres, unfortunately. This was one of the things for which we had advocated as a partial solution to concerns about public use. It fell on deaf ears, unfortunately, so Oregon does not have overdose prevention centres. It does not appear that there is a willingness to move in that direction anytime soon.

Another thing that would have been helpful would have been more access to sobering centres or places to take people who were found to be intoxicated on the street. Portland used to have those types of facilities but for the past several years it has not had many of them. To the extent it has had them, they have not been available to the capacity needed to respond to the number of people on the street who need those services. Measure 110 is funding some of those services but as I mentioned, there was a delay in getting that funding out. Of course, once the funding does get out, it takes time to hire staff, get the buildings and ensure those services are available. We feel that having those types of services, places to take people when they are in crisis or where they can use drugs under a roof, would have been extremely helpful in this situation.

As for the question on defunding the police, I have not looked at the Portland police agency's budget. I know there have been some staffing issues that predated the defund the police protests that were going on in 2020. I do not even know if any defunding occurred. We know that the police have shown resistance to measure 110 since its passing instead of focusing on the tools they have. They have the ability, as they had during measure 110, to take anybody found to be intoxicated on the street to a treatment facility or if no treatment facility is available, to take them to jail. Police did not use the tool and instead just threw up their hands and said that measure 110 took away all of their tools to respond to people who were intoxicated or who were using drugs. That was not a true statement.

Unlike the system in British Columbia, possession did remain unlawful in Oregon. It was a violation and police had the authority to write a citation and to seize drugs if they thought it was the right thing to do in a situation. Unfortunately, the police did not take this tool seriously and instead, for the most part, decided to focus on saying their hands were tied and they could do nothing in those types of situations.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the witnesses. It is extremely helpful to hear this international experience and I thank them for bringing it to us. Deputy Chief Constable Wilson highlighted some of the unintended consequences of decriminalisation in British Columbia. The use of drugs in public spaces such as parks and beaches, and on public transport, had an adverse effect on society and small businesses. I am from an area that has been over the years, and is still, ravaged by drug use and adversity. The last thing I want is to add any more damage to my community's safety and well-being. I want to frame my questions in a solution-focused way. If Ireland was to bring in legislation to decriminalise drugs, should we factor a prohibition on public use into that legislation at the very start? Where somebody does not have access to a home in which to use drugs, should public consumption rules be part of that legislation?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Absolutely. What we found in British Columbia is that people who were ambivalent towards or supported decriminalisation became strong voices against it once it took effect because the matter of public consumption was never addressed. There is, of course, an argument to be made, and it is an argument we have heard, that the effects of seeing someone using drugs in front of your children, for example, are not as significant as someone dying inside and alone because he or she is not able to use in public spaces. That is more of a philosophical debate. We heard loud and clear from communities across our province that public drug use was very concerning. I suggest to any jurisdiction that is contemplating decriminalisation that it ensures there are strong parameters around public consumption. Like I always say, we lost the room. We lost the support of people who otherwise supported decriminalisation because people generally do not tolerate the notion of families, youth and children being exposed to public drug use.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I mentioned already that alcohol is legal but being drunk and disorderly is an offence. Was any consideration given to using simple public order offences to deal with problematic drug use?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Yes. Because of the way our laws are here in Canada and in British Columbia, we did not want to be instructing our members to try to find shortcuts around the exemption. We did not want them utilising other pieces of legislation simply because decriminalisation was not addressing the direct concerns that communities were expressing about the matter of public consumption.

Another thing is that when we arrest somebody for causing a disturbance in public, for example, or breach of the peace, as soon as those behaviours stop, we are required to let that person go. It is best described as a temporary arrest provision. We recognise that when we arrest people who are high on drugs for things like being intoxicated in a public place and we take them to jail, they are very high risk. Jail is not the right place for a person who is in a drug crisis, much like it is not the right place for someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis. It becomes high risk for the individual and high risk for our police officers who man our jails as well. We did not want to rely on provisions to try to fill the gaps that decriminalisation left. We wanted to advocate for lawmakers to come up with solutions to address public consumption in a way that was addressing that issue head on. That is the easiest way to say it.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I have a question for Mr. Russoniello - I probably pronounced that really wrong. He mentioned the relentless opposition of decriminalisation by police agencies. Prior to the introduction of measure 110, did engagement happen with the police agencies? What changed? Were the engagements prior to 110 positive and productive? What changed then?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

There were conversations with police departments prior to measure 110’s passage. Unfortunately, I am not sure how far those moved long. Measure 110 was a voter ballot initiative, so it did not go through the legislature. It was through the general election in 2020 and Oregon voters voted for it. It did not go through the legislative process and have that typical back-and-forth political deliberation. Essentially, the law passed as we had drafted it. We attempted to have conversations during the drafting process but, to my knowledge, the police did not engage with us, or rather, we did not have significant engagement with police at that time.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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Would it be important, at the earliest onset of any talks about decriminalisation, to have the police agency on board and bring them along?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Ideally, we would have all of the partners at the table coming together to form this policy. Especially if a decriminalisation scheme was to move forward in the way that measure 110 was written, we would want to have police at the table because they are such an integral part of the implementation of measure 110. As I mentioned, I think there might be alternate ways to think about what the role of police is. From what I have heard from many police departments, they do not want to be the ones who are responding in many of these situations - they would rather leave it to health professionals. However, I am not sure that measure 110 was drafted in the best way possible to achieve that outcome because it relied so heavily, at least initially, on police being the ones who interact with people and the citation system, which became a focal point of whether measure 110 was living up to its expectations. More generally, to answer the Deputy’s question, yes, I think it is important to have all the stakeholders at the table and to ensure their needs are being met.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I will swap Senator Fitzpatrick for Deputy Murnane O'Connor, if that is okay.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the two witnesses. Many of my questions have been answered.

I will go to Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Wilson first. I have two questions for her. She spoke about how these other resources take significantly longer to achieve and implement. She spoke about areas of education, prevention, treatment and other provisions of health services. The strategy with decriminalisation was fine but she said it came in quite quickly. Were these areas addressed enough? Was there a huge concern that there were other areas? These are huge, and even working with families - she spoke about families as well.

The other surprising thing in her opening statement was, "other jurisdictions that have implemented or considered decriminalisation, only to later abandon it, have done so because of unaddressed and unintended impacts on community safety and well-being". That is a worry. She kind of answered some of it, but some if it she has not.

My other question is to Mr. Russoniello. I probably said his name wrong, as previous speakers did. In his opening statement, he stated “Measure 110’s ... repeal does not represent a policy failure, but a failure of political will.” I ask him about the political will because he mentioned that a few times. He also said, “Unfortunately, after an intense disinformation campaign by measure 110 opponents, politicians voted earlier this year to recriminalise possession.” These two questions are important. As he knows, it is all agencies working together, from the Garda to, for example, education or health services. Does he see those as being the concerns of what did happen? Where does he think changes could be made?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

With respect to resources, unlike Oregon, we have 12 overdose prevention sites in the city of Vancouver alone. Four of those have inhalation services because we know the majority of people now who are dying from illicit toxic drugs do so through inhalation. We have some good resources for sure in this province. However, when you get into more remote communities, those resources are sorely lacking. We were advised as we went through the decriminalisation process – that frankly police were very involved in for the year and half leading up to the exemption taking effect - that there would be a dramatic increase in health resources. Although there was some increase, there definitely was not an increase to the level that we believed was necessary. For example, if someone who was suffering from a substance use disorder decided that they wanted to get into treatment and get clean, there were still lengthy waiting lists to get into a treatment bed. We would have liked to see more harm reduction services but particularly more resources on the education, prevention and treatment side as well. However, in some of those rural communities, even harm reduction services were lacking. I would strongly recommend that if you are contemplating decriminalisation, it has to go hand in hand with a dramatic increase in health resources, particularly if you will try to direct people to pathways to health, which is what we intended to do.

I mentioned other jurisdictions that have rolled back decriminalisation. Vancouver and Oregon are examples of that. In Portugal, there have been some significant changes with respect to their situation as well. That is one thing seen in Portugal. There was a dramatic increase in resources at the beginning but as those resources are rolled back and taken away, they are seeing some problematic outcomes. I hope that answers the Deputy’s questions.

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Regarding the question about political will, as one of the other committee members mentioned earlier, one of the problems was not enough time was given to measure 110. We had more than 50 years of the war on drugs to entrench ourselves in these problems. Measure 110 was effective for essentially three years and it took all of the heat for basically every social ill that Oregon was experiencing at the time. That was one of the issues.

What happened was this. There were and are social issues that Portland and Oregon are facing, including public drug use. The research shows that measure 110 has not been associated with an increase in those problems, which existed prior to measure 110. To the extent that there has been an increase in those problems, it is more directly related to Covid-19, the arrival of fentanyl and the ongoing housing crisis in Oregon. However, it was very convenient for people to say that measure 110 took effect in 2021 and these problems seem to have become worse since that time and, therefore, measure 110 is causing all of these problems. That is not the case but, unfortunately, it makes a very clean story and it was something that politicians had to respond to. Essentially, they were responding to this political problem of being told that measure 110 is making everything worse for their constituents. Unfortunately, when you focus on the wrong problem, you are going to come up with the wrong solution, and their solution was to roll back measure 110.

What should have happened was that we focused on the correct problem. There is not enough housing, we need overdose prevention centres, we need to increase services and people need economic assistance in the wake of Covid-19. Dealing with those types of things would probably have gone much further to address the issues that people are actually concerned with. We know that going back to criminalisation will not work. Even if we are focusing on people who are using in public, if our approach is to arrest, incarcerate and cycle people through that, we are just going to end up with an extremely expensive system that does not effectively connect people to treatment and, instead, disrupts people's lives. It is something the police do not want to use their resources on. People will just cycle through the system without getting the care they need.

Unfortunately, measure 110 became an easy scapegoat for a lot of the problems that Portland and Oregon were experiencing. It is important to note that other communities in the United States, such as San Francisco, New York and Seattle, are all experiencing the same problems as Portland in terms of increasing homelessness and fentanyl overdose deaths, but none of those other places have had decriminalisation and they cannot blame it on decriminalisation. The fact they did so in Oregon was a way for politicians to respond to what their constituents were saying but, unfortunately, it is not going to have the effect they would like it to.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the witnesses for attending and for their presentations. It is very important that we listen to the lived professional experience they have on these issues. It is also vital, as we move forward ourselves, that we look at these issues from all of the different angles. One of the things I have learned since being elected is the risk of potential unintended consequences. We need to make sure that any policy and legislative change that we bring forward does not have negative impacts for our communities.

I have a question for Ms Wilson, the deputy chief constable. She mentioned public displays of drug use. What forms of consumption were happening and in what spaces? Were the police force receiving complaints or was it that police force members were noticing it themselves?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

That is a great question. We were definitely noticing it ourselves. I am the president of the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police and, as an organisation, we were hearing this loud and clear from police leaders across the province. This was not just limited to Vancouver, and I can say that with confidence. Our police officers were noticing that there was increased congregation in front of businesses, for example. Business owners were complaining that their customers were afraid to come in because there would be people using drugs outside the doors of the businesses on the sidewalk. We were seeing both injection drug use and inhalation. With respect to inhalation, there were sometimes by-laws that we were able to utilise because we have smoking by-laws. If they were using within a certain distance of a doorway, for example, we have prohibitions against that with respect to smoking that we were able to utilise regardless of whether it was crack cocaine or a cigarette. For the most part, many of the complaints were around parks, playgrounds and areas in front of businesses on sidewalks, and bus shelters were another good example.

One of the things that happened with decriminalisation is another nuance that you do not contemplate until you get into it. Before drugs became decriminalised, people would historically have called 911 to say that a bunch of people are standing outside their business, and they are all using drugs and the person would like them to be moved along. That call would go onto our call board and our members would respond. They would generally go out and ask everybody to leave, and they would leave because they did not want trouble with the police, did not want to get arrested and did not want their drugs seized, and that would be the end of that.

People learned very quickly that if they did call 911 to report something like that, the third party service provider who answers our phones would say, “I am sorry, that is not a police matter”, because our police officers had no lawful authority to do anything about that kind of behaviour in the absence of any unlawful behaviour like causing a disturbance or breaking a smoking by-law. It was difficult to measure the complaints from the public because the public quickly learned there was no point in calling. From a research and analysis perspective, it was hard to determine the statistics because those calls to services, as one would expect, naturally go down as people learn there is nothing anyone can do about that kind of problematic circumstance of consumption, assuming that people were using what appeared to be under 2.5 g and they were not in a place that was an exception to the exemptions. That is another thing to be aware of. If you are not going to deal with the matter of public consumption, it gets difficult to measure the impact on communities because it is no longer a police matter, if that makes sense.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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From Ms Wilson's experience and looking at it now from her perspective, what could have been done to make this work? If we are looking at decriminalisation, what would be the top two or three things that Ms Wilson would suggest?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

The one thing we agree on in British Columbia is that we do not want to put people in jail by virtue of a substance use disorder. Everything that flows from that, however, is about the details. What I would say is this: you have to make sure that police officers are still empowered to address matters of public consumption through legislation, whether it is a ticketing regime or otherwise. Whether the police want to be the resource that is interacting with people who use drugs, because I do not disagree that, in many circumstances, there is a more appropriate response from the health side, the reality is that it is the police who get called at 2 a.m. to deal with those sorts of situations or to come to the park or the business that is complaining about people using outside its front door. The police need to be armed with the ability to deal with matters of public consumption because, otherwise, people can use wherever they want. We have seen in British Columbia that that was a bit of a disaster, to be frank. I would make sure that police officers still have the lawful authority to address matters of public consumption, whether that is through legislation, much like there might be with respect to liquor or, in our case in British Columbia, cannabis, or whether it is through being creative around the consequences of being arrested by police, meaning there is diversion to a health pathway as opposed to a criminal justice one. Whatever the committee decides to do, my number one takeaway on decriminalisation is that you still have to make sure the police are empowered to deal with matters of public consumption.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I have one last question and I will come in again later with questions for the other witness. Ms Wilson outlined that consumption facilities or services were available for people in British Columbia.

Was it that there were not enough? Was funding reduced? Were people still using the facilities in the same way they did before? Did their use increase or stay the same?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

That is a great question. I do not have the answer to it. When I said we had enough facilities, in the city of Vancouver I would say we do, but across the province many remote communities do not have enough overdose prevention sites. Vancouver could reduce its capacity of overdose prevention sites as part of harm reduction measures.

Looking at our streets, there is no question that there is an increase in the number of people using in outdoor spaces. Quite frankly, that was one of the objectives of decriminalisation. There was a notion that when people use inside or indoors, they do so alone and are more likely to die. Unfortunately, what we saw in the wake of decriminalisation was quite a significant increase in the number of overdose deaths outdoors. That to me is an indication of people using outdoor spaces more often.

It is also overlaid with an increases in homelessness and other factors. It is not all about decriminalisation. We did not see an increase in the number of overdose deaths, but we saw an increase in deaths outdoors. The notion that if people are using outdoors they are inherently safer than if they are using inside is one that needs to be unpacked and untangled in the research, because we do not have research that determined that correlation. In British Columbia, there is a need for more harm reduction resources as well as other resources on the continuum of care to which I referred.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Ms Wilson. I will come back in.

Mal O'Hara (Green Party)
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I thank the witnesses. I will start with Ms Wilson. In her opening statement, she spoke about historic de facto decriminalisation, which was about police using their discretion. Was there a disproportionate impact with that discretion on black, brown, minority and indigenous communities?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

That is a good question. I have the statistics for 2022, but unfortunately do not have them at my fingertips. In respect of the five or so charges of simple possession, the numbers were not disproportionate. We know indigenous people in this province, in particular, are much more likely to be impacted by the illicit drug crisis. We see that in the number of overdose deaths.

Mal O'Hara (Green Party)
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I thank Ms Wilson. Senator Ruane spoke about prevention and education. It was clear in the opening statements from the witnesses that there were gaps that should have been filled, complementary to the pace of change for decriminalisation. Could the witnesses talk about what those might be?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

At the end of the day, the biggest prevention effort we can make in the province with respect to fentanyl use, in particular, is preventing kids from ever trying it in the first place. It is not just hardcore users who are dying. Our illicit drug supply in this province is toxic. People are dying not because they are using too much of a drug or anything like that, as used to be the case. Rather, the drug supply is poisonous. Any amount of illicit drugs can lead to an overdose death. We have seen that in representation from across all types of populations in the province which have been impacted by the illicit drug toxicity crisis.

Prevention and education are the biggest tools to try to get ahead of this crisis. As I said, it is not just entrenched users who are dying; it is kids who are trying drugs for the first time as well. That is why education and prevention resources are critical, whether that is getting into schools, programmes in community centres, police information, health programmes or whatever else the case may be.

Mal O'Hara (Green Party)
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Ms Wilson almost pre-empted my next question. I wanted to talk about drug testing. She referred to the increased toxicity of substances. What is the regime or scheme around testing? Is there any sense of diversionary tactics? She said the police have limited powers with decriminalisation. What would she suggest might be an appropriate diversionary tactic?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Drug testing is really interesting because it was much more useful when people were afraid of fentanyl being in their drugs. Health could provide drug testing services and if fentanyl was detected, an individual knew to avoid those drugs or make sure they were using in a supervised way. The problem now is that everyone who is entrenched in street-level drug use is looking for fentanyl. It is not helpful to have drug testing that determines whether fentanyl is in the drug supply because fentanyl and benzodiazepines are in almost all of our illicit street drugs these days. People are seeking them because they become addicted to both of those substances.

We have drug checking sites, but they are limited. From a policing perspective, we have made it very clear that although we support drug checking and safe supply programmes, the initiative needs to be lawful. That is the police position with respect to drug checking and the utilisation of some harm reduction services. What was the second question?

Mal O'Hara (Green Party)
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I asked about diversion.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

With respect to decriminalisation, we armed our police officers with cards which had information on health resources on them. Our members could hand them out to people when they came across an individual who they thought might benefit from that. Initially, our health authority wanted us to keep track of how many of those cards we handed out, and when and to whom. We refused to do that because we have learned from previous examples with our health authority that it will track that from a policing perspective, but is completely unwilling to provide us or the public with information about how effective those programmes are. That is another warning I strongly urge the committee to consider.

A health alternative is the way to go. There is no question in my mind that illicit drug use is a health matter and should be treated as such. If the committee is going to consider diversion to health, I strongly encourage it to ensure that health has some reporting mechanism so we know what is effective and if police officers are directing people to pathways of health, we know how often they are utilised, how successful they are and whether alternatives should be considered because certain pathways are not accessible, helpful or being utilised. In respect of the health authority, if people are being directed to pathways of health, which I think is the way to go, I strongly urge the committee to ensure there is some reporting mechanism so that can be scrutinised and people can be sure those health pathways are being used. Oregon had some experience with that.

Mal O'Hara (Green Party)
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I thank Ms Wilson. In his evidence, Mr. Russoniello said peer-reviewed evidence suggested there was no association with an increase in deaths under measure 110. Could he speak a little more about that? Often the proponents of decriminalisation, myself included, hear pushback that we should look at Oregon, in particular Portland. We need to nail that in terms of the peer-reviewed evidence about there being no additional impact. I ask him to speak to that.

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Sure, and I would be happy to send those studies over as well so the Senator would have them. There have been at least two peer-reviewed studies that have found no association in overdose deaths with measure 110. To be sure, there has been an increase in overdose deaths in Oregon. What the research has found, though, is that the increase is not correlated with measure 110. What it is correlated with, primarily, is the introduction in 2019 of fentanyl into the west coast drugs supply. This can be seen in charts through the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, data which shows that from 2019, the overdose death rates in all of the states on the west coast have exploded as fentanyl has come to the west coast. Prior to 2019, from about 2012 to 2019, fentanyl was only on the east coast but, starting in 2019, it proliferated in the west coast drug supply and has now permeated it. All that is to say that fentanyl is the driver of overdose dates now, in the United States and in Oregon. The research shows that even though overdose deaths have increased, measure 110 is not associated with that increase.

Mal O'Hara (Green Party)
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I thank the Chair. Being further down the list means lots of my questions have been asked. I thank both witnesses.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I thank both witnesses for their thought-provoking and frank contributions. If I could start with Deputy Chief Constable Wilson, when I read her opening statement and listened to her, the experience was that the cart was put before the horse. I heard a report from our Minister for Health recently that in Vancouver during Covid, there was a higher number of deaths related to overdoses than there were to Covid. I can see how there was a rush to do something in response to it so I suppose all credit needs to be given that something was tried.

In Ms Wilson's list of what needs to be done first, she says we need to give consideration to matters of public consumption, licensed establishments, semi-public spaces and driving-related concerns. That seems to be analogous to what Deputy Ward said about public order and alcohol, and that if we used analogous laws, perhaps that would mitigate some of the problematic experiences Vancouver had. Would that be correct?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Absolutely.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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Is there anything else that Ms Wilson would add?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

I would certainly add the increase with respect to resources and the need to ensure that when people want to seek treatment, that treatment is available. Unlike in Oregon, we had not legislated for any kind of increase in resources as a requirement under the exemption. For us with respect to resources, it was status quo in the wake of decriminalisation, whereas our hope and expectation from a policing perspective were that an increase in resources would occur but it did not materialise to the extent that we wanted it to along that entire spectrum. Making sure that you have those goalposts in and those parameters in place around public consumption is probably one of the largest issues.

Another great scenario for us in British Columbia was that you could have an 18-year-old, because the exemption applied to 18 and over, but in British Columbia you cannot drink alcohol until you are 19. Because the exemption was federal, it applied to the federal age of majority, which was 18. We had scenarios where an 18-year-old could go into a licensed establishment, and if that licensed establishment allowed it, they would not be able to order a beer but they could snort cocaine off the table as long as it was under 2.5 g, they brought it in themselves, and the licensee was not prohibiting that kind of behaviour. Those are some of the unintended consequences because use was not addressed, and only possession was.

I have lots of examples like that. Decriminalisation sounds so simple because we do not want to put people in jail by virtue of their drug use, but once you start getting into the details it can become very complex. Drug use is a very complex matter, much like my friend from Oregon mentioned. We do not believe we saw an increase in people using illicit drugs, but we did see an increase in people using drugs in circumstances that were unpalatable to other communities that we serve.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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Very good. I will come to services and resources in a moment. Was there any notable change in the patterns of organised crime around drug distribution and drug sales?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Not that we noted. We were very concerned about trafficking. For us and for our laws here, trafficking is not about the quantity but the behaviour. Even if someone had 2.5 g, it was individually packaged and there were a number of other behaviours that were indicators of trafficking, that individual could still be arrested for trafficking. The chances of us getting charge approval with respect to an incident like that, if the amount was under 2.5 g, are likely diminished but our traffickers generally have a bit more product than that on them in any event. No, we did not necessarily see any kind of increase with respect to organised crime.

Another point that is important to note is that people always ask if it freed up policing resources, but it did not. We were never focused on the person who was using for personal use. We focused on the individuals and groups that caused the most harm in our society, that is, those groups that are producing, trafficking, importing and exporting. That is where we focused our enforcement efforts, not on the individual user who is struggling with a substance use disorder.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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It sounds like Vancouver had already reached the disposition of being health led and the legal arena was brought in to support a position that was already adopted.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

That is right.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I turn to Mr. Russoniello. I apologise for my brutal pronunciation of his name. What I hear him saying is that there was an abject failure of multi-agency resourcing to support decriminalisation. What he is describing sounds pretty dramatic anyway. We currently have services such as drugs task forces, although there are not enough of them. Is there a threshold we should be looking for that could be commensurate with a decriminalisation policy and law coming into place? How do we measure that we have reached that place?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

That is a very good question and a difficult one to answer. I am not sure I would recommend there is a place because, as I mentioned earlier, decriminalisation in itself has its own benefits and is harm reduction and should be thought of that way. I caution against waiting until a certain threshold is reached because it is very easy not to reach that threshold, push off decriminalisation and continue all of the harms criminalisation causes.

In terms of the structural support for decriminalisation, however, all of the major bodies that are going to be involved in the implementation should be on board and involved in the process prior to it commencing. We did not have that luxury in Oregon because it was a ballot initiative measure that went through the voter approval process. We also ended up having to implement it in the perfect storm of Covid, fentanyl and all of these other things.

Covid, in particular, really took the attention of the Oregon Health Authority, which was the main state health authority charged with the implementation of measure 110. It was also the state's main body charged with response to Covid-19 so, understandably, its attention was on responding to that. Unfortunately, that meant the Oregon Health Authority's attention was not on implementation of measure 110, and there was not enough support being given to the bodies that were established by measure 110 to ensure the health services were being implemented in the way they should have been. Ultimately, that resulted in a delay of the funds getting out.

Another body that would have been good to engage from the beginning would have been the Oregon State Police agency. It is not really itself its own enforcement agency but it provides the training for all of the agencies within the state. It would have been great to engage because it would have been the one who could have provided training to the agencies on how to issue citations, why to issue citations and effective ways to engage people. It also could have provided a uniform citation form as throughout measure 110's decriminalisation, there was never a uniform citation form developed which would have been useful for police to provide to people and which could have provided information on how to access the healthcare screenings in order to avoid getting a ticket.

For things like that it really would have very helpful to have all of the bodies on board and engaged but unfortunately we did not have that luxury, partly because of the ballot initiative process and partly because of the unpredictable and unforeseen implementation challenges we faced.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Russoniello. It would be reasonable to say that Ireland's experience during Covid was that we had fewer numbers of people accessing supports and we saw a drop in people, so it is unfair for the experience of Covid to be used to roll back on decriminalisation. I can feel Mr. Russoniello's annoyance at that and I completely agree with him.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Was Deputy Stanton hoping to come back in again?

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Will both of our witnesses give a brief outline with respect to the situation regarding cannabis: the legalisation; usage; and the downsides of the current situation in both jurisdictions? That is my first question.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

In Canada, cannabis is largely legalised. I am honestly not an expert on cannabis legislation. I have been very involved in decriminalisation with respect to illicit drugs but cannabis legalisation was somewhat before my time of being involved in drug policy. Across Canada, cannabis is legalised. We have provisions around public use, much like we do with alcohol, and we have government-regulated stores that sell cannabis and cannabis-related products.

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

In Oregon, under United States federal law marijuana remains a schedule 1 substance that is illegal, but under Oregon state law cannabis is legal to possess up to a certain amount and there are state-regulated dispensaries where cannabis can be accessed. There is also a civil violation for use of cannabis in public, so one cannot be arrested for that but he or she can be fined - I think up to $1,000 - for the use of cannabis in public. Because possession remained unlawful that was not something measure 110 thought was necessary to have a separate public possession or use penalty.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Could both witnesses comment on the situation with juveniles - those under the age of 18 - who are found in possession of substances? How is that dealt with? How are they treated?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

In the case of British Columbia, the exemption did not apply to youth. It only applied to people who were 18 years and older. The possession of illicit drugs remained illegal for anyone under the age of 18. Those would be some of those exceptional circumstances where our members would likely request a charge with respect to simple possession, depending on the circumstances, or engage with some of the diversion principles under our Youth Criminal Justice Act. The matter of possession of illicit drugs for a person under the age of 18 is still very much considered illegal and we take enforcement action when it comes to youth, for sure.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Will Deputy Chief Constable Wilson send the committee a note on that it might be very interesting to see what the enforcement actions look like. Also, sometimes we find in Ireland that young people are working under the direction of older gangs who exploit them. I am not sure if that is the same in Oregon but we are concerned about it here and have done a number of studies on that issue. Will Deputy Chief Constable Wilson comment on that as well?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Trafficking is what we would see youth being exploited to do. It still is and always has been illegal in British Columbia and Canada, with respect to illicit drugs, so that was never contemplated by the exemption. The exemption was simply for personal possession for personal use. Our Controlled Drugs and Substances Act would apply to youth just like it did prior to the exemption.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Chief Constable Wilson mentioned 2.5 g. How was that amount arrived at and does it apply to all substances? In Portugal, there was a scale although the committee was told recently they are dispensing with that and are focusing on whether or not somebody is dealing or trafficking versus personal possession.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

The 2.5 g was interesting. Initially, at the planning table they were talking about 4.5 g non-cumulative amounts, so it could have been 4.5 g of heroin, cocaine and fentanyl for example. From a policing perspective that is something we pushed back very strongly on. The compromise was cumulative 2.5 g and that is opioids, cocaine, MDMA and all of the drugs listed in my opening comments, that is, all of the major drugs. Interestingly, it does not include benzodiazepine. When we did our training for our members we did not send them out on the streets with scales. We did training where they had images and most of our members will have a good sense of what 2.5 g looks like and we encouraged them to use their discretion.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Chief Constable Wilson.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Deputy Ward is before Deputy Gould.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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Just to follow Deputy Stanton's question on how it was decided what drugs would be decriminalised for personal use. Deputy Chief Constable Wilson's opening statement mentioned opiates, cocaine, MDMA and methamphetamines but she just mentioned fentanyl there. Given what Mr. Russoniello said about fentanyl being a driver for overdose and I know that in Oregon as well, fentanyl was included for decriminalisation. Is that something Deputy Chief Constable Wilson would change now? Would she include fentanyl given its toxic nature and how lethal it is? That question is for both witnesses.

Ms Fiona Wilson:

In British Columbia, fentanyl has been the leading cause of illicit toxic drug deaths for a number of years now. We knew fentanyl was one of the drugs that would be part of the exemption. I would not change that. There is a lot about the exemption itself I would change and the roll-out of it. Perhaps this is a good time for me to throw in another comment about moving forward. Fentanyl is absolutely devastating on our communities. It is the number one drug that is found to be the leading cause of death in illicit toxic drug deaths in this province. As I mentioned earlier, we average seven per day. It is incredible. There is one thing I encourage this committee to do.

It may not be something the committee is contemplating when it is thinking about decriminalisation, but I cannot overstate how important the enforcement piece is in trying to keep fentanyl out of Irish communities. I am aware that fentanyl is not a drug that is necessarily very prevalent in Ireland. We produce more fentanyl in British Columbia than there is a need or an ask for. Fentanyl was the game-changer for us here in Vancouver. It is what led to the crisis we have found ourselves in today. Some of those present have been to Vancouver and driven in the downtown east side. I cannot describe the impact fentanyl has had on communities. I walked the beat in the downtown east side when crack cocaine was prevalent and really sweeping our streets, but fentanyl is in a different stratosphere. It is just devastating. I strongly encourage the committee to consider how it can support enforcement efforts with respect to importation, detection, tracking, tracing and dismantling of any production facilities with respect to fentanyl in Irish communities.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I was not clear on Ms Wilson's answer. Would she still include fentanyl on the list of drugs she would decriminalise?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

We would, only because the whole purpose of decriminalisation was to try to be one piece of the puzzle to address the overdose crisis and fentanyl was responsible for a large number of those deaths. Excluding it would have been very inconsistent with the objectives of decriminalisation.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Before Deputy Gould contributes, did Deputy Ward wish to direct that question to Mr. Russoniello as well?

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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Yes. I ask Mr. Russoniello to briefly answer that. I am interested in the Oregon experience.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I apologise, but we are all struggling with the pronunciation of his surname.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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We are on first name terms now, Kellen. It is easier.

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Yes. We would also continue to include fentanyl in any decriminalisation. I agree with what Ms Wilson said. Essentially, if we did not include fentanyl, I am unsure how much an impact decriminalisation would have because at this point fentanyl is pretty much what everybody is using. It has so dominated the drug market that people who are using drugs are most likely using fentanyl. If it was not included, the vast majority of people would not qualify for decriminalisation and that would defeat the purpose.

From a philosophical perspective on what the point of decriminalisation is and moving towards a public health perspective, you also want to include that drug because you want to get the people who are using fentanyl directed to the health services. Criminalising fentanyl and drugs has not worked to deter people from using, so continuing to criminalise that does not mean fentanyl will go away. As Ms Wilson said, you can have different approaches for personal use versus trafficking but when talking about decriminalisation for personal use, you want to be sure to include the substances people are commonly using.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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To follow up on that, Mr. Russoniello stated "Decriminalisation is an important component of a public health approach to drugs, but it should not act alone." Does this mean he believes an increase in services is needed in tandem with decriminalisation for it to be successful or do these services need to be in place first? Mr. Russoniello also said that if you were to wait for services, you might not proceed with decriminalisation. Services are key. We must have the funding of services so if we introduce decriminalisation we look at the whole approach. Mr. Russoniello mentioned that the kickback was both political and from policing and that the police were never on board with this. Our police force, to its credit, will implement whatever legislation comes in. I do not think it would ever be an issue here, but obviously the force is part of the conversation. Going back to that point, from Mr. Russoniello's experience and looking back at where he came from, there is the decriminalisation side, the policing side, the health-led approach side and then services. Will he comment on trying to tie all of them in?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Ideally, we would have everything. We would have decriminalisation and services in place. There would not be waiting lists and people could access treatment on demand. We need to be advocating for all of it. In places where people can get services without decriminalisation being in place, we should be advocating for increased services and for places where that is not possible, we should still be considering whether decriminalisation is an approach that can move forward. It really is about what problems these solutions are solving. Decriminalisation is primarily focused on reducing the harms of criminalisation, the number of arrests and the problems that come with having a criminal record for life. There is disruption to people's lives when they are arrested and are no longer able to access their job, housing or treatment because they have been incarcerated. That is a different but related concern to expanding services, which is ensuring people have the services available so they can improve their lives and communities. Ideally, we want all that to move forward together, but we should not wait for the perfect scenario to move forward with decriminalisation because we might never get there.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I suppose the point is that for decriminalisation it to be successful, ideally everything would come together to give it the best chance of success. Is that a fair point?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Yes, that is a fair point. If Oregon had happened and we did not have fentanyl and Covid - the storm hit at the exact same time - we would not be in the situation we are in today. I really believe decriminalisation would have been given more time. It is an unfortunate circumstance we landed in but, ultimately, we want to have everything packaged together as we move forward.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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Does Ms Wilson agree that for decriminalisation to be successful and to give it the best chance, everything needs to be tied in?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Absolutely.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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On cannabis, one of the witnesses made the point that it is now treated almost like alcohol in that people cannot consume it in public but they can get it in certain stores. Are there issues with cannabis being used in public? Does that issue come up?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

I can speak to British Columbia. If there is an issue with people using cannabis in public, we have legislation we can use to address that behaviour. It is not a significant issue for enforcement here.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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Does Mr. Russoniello have the same experience in Oregon with respect to cannabis?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Yes, it is essentially the same. There is not the same concern with public consumption of cannabis as there is with consumption of fentanyl and methamphetamine in public.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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When decriminalisation was introduced, did it result in the police having more manpower and time to concentrate on the serious criminals because they were not arresting people for small amounts or for personal use?

Was there a benefit? The main traffickers and suppliers had to be tackled. Did it make any difference from a policing point of view?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

From our perspective, it made absolutely no difference because we were not focusing our enforcement efforts on individuals who were simply in personal possession of illicit drugs for their own use. For many years, our enforcement efforts have been directed towards the individuals in groups who are causing the most harm in our society with respect to our drug policy.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentations today. Someone made the point earlier that sometimes Oregon is used as an example of what went wrong. From the information the witnesses have provided today about British Columbia, it is to be hoped we can learn from these experiences. It is a pity that, due to Covid and the arrival of fentanyl, the region faced the perfect storm in drug terms. I wish everyone the best of luck. It is a tragedy that so many lives are being lost. It is frightening and it must be really hard to be on the front line there. I really enjoyed the contributions and I think I have learned a lot.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Deputy Stanton, did you want to come in again?

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I agree with my colleague that it has been a most useful and informative session. I thank everyone for their time. It is most appreciated.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I have one question for Ms Wilson regarding recriminalisation. If I understand it correctly, the provincial government took steps to enact legislation that would have prevented public substance use. You explained that it would not have prevented public substance use per se but that it would have enabled law enforcement officers to request somebody to stop using or to move on and use elsewhere. A failure to adhere to that request would become an offence. You pointed out that this was struck down by the courts or an injunction was secured. Was there then a view that this could not be brought about in another way or that there was no way to legislate to prevent use and that the only thing to do was to decriminalise? Alternatively, was it a classic stand-off between two branches of government when it is decided to do a thing in a certain way? Was there any further discussion about refining legislation or was it just a knee-jerk response to the court decision by the legislature?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

No, in fact that legislation is still working its way through the courts. It is still being contemplated. The court process is likely to take longer than the pilot project for decriminalisation here in British Columbia. We have another year and a half or so left in this pilot project. By the time that works its way through the courts, the decriminalisation pilot project will likely have concluded. There was an attempt to go back and to continue working on that legislation but the injunction has to be addressed. As I said, our court process is not necessarily a speedy one in that regard. We understood that it was not going to be a viable solution.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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To be clear, was the recriminalisation a response to the court decision?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Yes, the provincial government went back to Health Canada and asked for a complete ban on the exemption in public spaces, in part as a result of the failed attempt to create legislation successfully and in a timely manner.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Okay, so there was to be a complete ban in public spaces, but instead-----

Ms Fiona Wilson:

That is what happened.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Possession in private is still decriminalised. Is that correct?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Private homes or shelters where you are lawfully sheltering and sanctioned overdose prevention sites or drug checking sites are the only places where the exemption still applies. Otherwise, for all other spaces apart from the aforementioned designated exceptions, the exemption does not apply.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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In the limited circumstances and locations where the exemption applies, it applies to all drugs, opioids, fentanyl, cocaine, MDMA, etc. Is that correct?

Ms Fiona Wilson:

Yes, for adults and if the quantity is less than 2.5 g.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Okay, that is clear. In Oregon, there has been a complete recriminalisation, other than for cannabis, which was not the subject of measure 110. Is that correct?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

That is correct. Cannabis laws remain as they were. Possession of any of the other controlled substances is now a misdemeanour offence, punishable by up to six months in jail. The new law envisions counties creating their own types of diversion programmes. However, it is still very much up in the air what those diversion programmes will look like, which counties will have them and how it will all play out. There is definitely the risk of jail for all possession now.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Counties are not mandated to have a diversion programme. It remains an option for them. Is that correct?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

That is correct.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Are people frequently jailed for possession of quantities that would typically be in the range for personal consumption?

Mr. Kellen Russoniello:

Prior to measure 110, long sentences for drug possession were pretty rare. Usually what would happen was the cycle of a person being arrested, detained and then released or, if convicted, they would get a community supervision sentence. This is something I have not mentioned previously. Oregon has a public defender crisis, on top of all its other crises. It has one third the number of public defenders it needs to provide constitutionally adequate representation. That applies across the criminal legal system. By adding these cases back on top of the public defender's dockets, it is likely that in many cases, even if people get charged, the charges will be dropped because they will not have public defence representation.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Thank you both for the clarifications to me and for the invaluable information provided to the members of the committee over the past two hours. I thank you both for taking time out of your very busy schedules and doing so at short notice. Your questions and answers have given us a lot to think about. The expertise you have shared with us has been very useful and very informative.

The joint committee stands adjourned until Thursday, 11 July.

The joint committee adjourned at 9 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 11 July 2024.