‘These are our brothers and sisters’: B.C.’s top doctor renews call for decriminalization of drug use

British Columbia recorded 170 illicit drug overdoses in May, marking the highest number of drug overdoses across the province in a single month. Miranda Fatur reports.

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — An emotional Dr. Bonnie Henry called for compassion on Thursday after the province recorded its highest-ever total of illicit drug deaths for a month in May.

Henry’s voice quivered when she discussed the overdose deaths, then renewed her call for the decriminalization of people who use illegal drugs.

According to the province, there were 170 suspected overdose-related fatalities in May. The previous record was 161 deaths in a month, set in December 2016.

“These are our brothers and sisters, our co-workers, our sons, our daughters, our friends, our community,” said the provincial health officer. “And the extent and challenges of these crises that we are facing, both the overdose crisis and on top of that the COVID-19 pandemic, have really stretched our resources to the limit,” she added.

“What we do know about these recent deaths is that there has been a dramatic increase in the toxicity of the street drug supply here in British Columbia, and it is around the province.”

Henry said COVID-19 — which has claimed 167 lives in B.C. since the pandemic was declared — is forcing people to stay further apart from others.

“We know that using alone right now is exceedingly deadly. The alarms of people missing have not been going off because we have been doing our part to do our best to try and manage the other crises we’re dealing with.”

Henry released a report on decriminalization in April 2019, while the overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency in B.C. four years ago.

“It’s not the drugs that we’re talking about. We’re talking about people who use drugs, who have small amounts for their own personal use, not being criminally charged, and that’s what the Criminal Code of Canada requires right now,” she said.

“But I believe there are ways within B.C. that we can have de facto decriminalization, and some of those we see already in place where people don’t face criminal charges, they may face administrative issues, they may actually get the support that they need to understand the issues that led them to use drugs in the first place.”

Henry said the minister of public safety and solicitor general is considering it, but added the matter is part of the Criminal Code of Canada.

“We do want action at the federal level, and I’ve been calling for that and we’ll continue to answer that call today for action at all levels,” she added.

“We know being able to access a safe supply of drugs is one way that we can connect with people who use drugs, and it is a connection that helps us address addiction. And it is connection that helps us helps us overcome the many reasons why we use drugs. We know that it is multi-factorial, that it has to do with pain, whether it’s physical pain, psychic pain, whether it’s emotional pain. And unless we connect with people, we don’t have an opportunity to help them address those underlying causes,” Henry said.

“We must all show the compassion that we have shown in addressing the COVID crisis.”


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