B.C. applies to decriminalize use of small amounts of illicit drugs in effort to reduce deaths

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A rose placed at the intersection of East Hastings and Main streets in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on Feb. 11, in memory of those lost to the opioid crisis. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A rose placed at the intersection of East Hastings and Main streets in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on Feb. 11, in memory of those lost to the opioid crisis. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

B.C. is applying to the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use, in an effort to reduce and prevent future drug poisoning deaths.

The move announced on Monday will make the province the first in Canada to seek the exemption from Health Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. If approved, the allowable threshold would be 4.5 grams and would apply to those 19 and above.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said removing criminal penalties for people who use drugs is key to stemming the overdose crisis, which has dramatically worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Substance use and addictions is a public health issue, it is not a criminal justice issue," she said during a press conference in Victoria on Monday, adding that "shame and fear keeps people from accessing life saving services and treatments."

Malcolmson said the application to Health Canada was a collaborative effort that included health and social services organizations, Indigenous organizations, municipalities, people with lived experience, law enforcement organizations and research groups.

The application will be submitted to Ottawa this week, but it's not known how long it will take for Health Canada to review the file.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, speaking Tuesday on CBC's The Early Edition, said she hopes Ottawa looks at the application "favourably and quickly."

"This is the first and the best option, and I'm very supportive of the fact that they put this application in," said Henry.

Henry said she favours a province-wide exemption because it means there will not be different approaches by different police detachments across B.C.

"We're going to do this together," she said.

Jump in deaths in 2021

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. had seen a decrease in deaths due to toxic drugs. But the pandemic reversed that trend, causing toxic drug poisoning deaths to reach an all-time high.

Figures released in September from the B.C. Coroners Service show there were 1,204 illicit drug toxicity deaths between January and the end of July — a 28 per cent jump over the same period in 2020.

The coroner says the first seven months of this year were the deadliest since a health emergency was declared in 2016, and July was the 17th straight month in which more than 100 B.C. residents died from toxic drug supply.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said she anticipates opposition to the move, but that years of criminalizing drug users has failed to end the crisis and the province needs to shift to a health-focused approach.

"Criminalizing people using drugs has meant punishing those that are already suffering," she said on Monday.

"The goal of decriminalization is to reduce suffering and death. It is a compassionate and rational response to a health crisis."

Concerns around allowable amount

While advocates think this is a positive step, some are saying the allowable threshold amount is too low, adding that the 4.5 gram allowance is not enough to decriminalize the majority of users.

"If the goal is to decriminalize drug use, like drug users, then you have to look at what drug users actually possess," said Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

Alexander B. Kim
Alexander B. Kim

"I want decriminalization to work for the people with the biggest habits who are most at risk, who are most policed, who are most oppressed."

In a statement, the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs said while it supports the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use, it does not support the recommendation to decriminalize 4.5 grams, arguing the amount is too large.

"Most people will purchase drugs in the milligrams — 100 mg would be what a person would use for a single dose of heroin, for example. So 4.5 grams represents 45 individual uses for a person who uses drugs," said Abbotsford police Chief Mike Serr.

He said the association is worried about organized crime and public consumption, among other concerns. They're asking the province to adopt a more measured and incremental approach.

"We're very open to continue to look at increasing thresholds. But after we've built. We don't want to fly a plane while it's in the air, we want to build the infrastructure in place and do this the right way to support people," he said.

Leslie McBain is the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm and says the allowable amount decision should be made in consultation with users, not police.

Mike McArthur/CBC
Mike McArthur/CBC

"[Police] are not the people who know what a person who uses drugs needs, what their needs are, what they're using, what their tolerances are," she said.

"We're doing this to protect people who use drugs. So who are the people we should be talking to and listening to? It's the people who use drugs."

Don Davies, the NDP's federal health critic and member of parliament for Vancouver Kingsway, said decriminalization is a necessary first step, but only part of a bigger solution that should include a regulated, safe supply of drugs for users.

"Everybody knows it's the toxic poison street supply supplied by criminals that is actually killing people. So, if we don't address that part of the equation, simply decriminalizing possession won't solve the problem," said Davies, also speaking on The Early Edition Tuesday.

Last month, Toronto said it was also preparing to ask Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal use in the city, following a similar request made by Vancouver in May.

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