B.C. pushes to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs

With record numbers of toxic drug deaths in the province, B.C. is asking the federal government to decriminalize personal possession of small amounts of drugs.

“Substance use and addictions is a public health issue. It is not a criminal justice issue,” said Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, arguing the removal of criminal penalties will take away a barrier to health and treatment services.

“I hear that shame and fear keeps people from accessing life-saving services and treatments. Shame and fear can make people hide their drug use and use drugs alone and, especially at a time of terribly toxic supply, using alone can mean dying alone.”

In its application, the province is asking for a “cumulative binding threshold quantity at 4.5g with no drug seizures, arrests, or charges for simple possession at or below this amount.” This would apply to opioids (including heroin and fentanyl), powder cocaine, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Related video: B.C. records second-deadliest month for toxic drug deaths

B.C. is the first province in Canada to seek an exemption from Health Canada in order to make decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use possible. Malcolmson says the province will also continue to build new treatment and recovery services, as well as overdose prevention sites.

“We will keep expanding our medication-assisted treatment program, including using nurse prescribers … Ordinarily, nurse can’t prescribe anything, but they can prescribe medication-assisted treatment in British Columbia,” she added.

More than 1,200 people died of illicit drug poisoning between January and July, 2021, a 28 per cent jump over the same period in 2020.

“These are our friends, our family, our brothers and sisters to the toxic drug use,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who spoke Monday alongside Malcolmson.

Related article: B.C. toxic drug deaths in July mark second-deadliest month: Coroner

The BC Coroners Service 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 a toxic drug supply.

According to the province, the number of people dying due to toxic drugs were starting to lower, but the COVID-19 pandemic “reversed this trend” and are now at an all-time high.

July’s deaths were primarily among men between 30 and 59 years of age and the majority happened inside private homes.

Mike Knott has worked on the frontlines of the overdose crisis for several years.

“I was a serious substance user for many years, myself,” he said. “I was criminalized
… and I hid my drug, from shame, from stigma, from criminalization. I hid my drug use as much as possible and I count myself as very lucky to be alive.”

He says he works with people and families that suffer from addictions.

“There’s no one answer to slowing the tide of this, these horrible deaths. But this is a great start. This is a little crack of light in some very dark times.”

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe says criminalizing people who use drugs has led to “decades of causing further harms to many who are already suffering from mental or physical health challenges and/or the effects of emotional or physical trauma.”

“Decriminalization will help shift our focus from punishment, which has resulted in social isolation, stigma and fear, toward a medical model that recognizes substance use as a health issue. This is an important step that, combined with increased access to safe supply and implementation of an evidence-based model of treatment and recovery, will help to save lives.”

Vancouver Coastal Health and Northern Health have seen the highest rates of death. Fentanyl has been far and beyond the biggest killer, with the opioid found in 86 per cent of July’s deaths.

Post-mortem toxicology results show an increase in extreme fentanyl concentrations reported since 2020. In Vancouver Coastal Health, 17 per cent of the fentanyl-detected deaths had concentrations greater than 50 micrograms per litre.

“There is no magic bullet to end the drug poisoning crisis, but decriminalizing people who use drugs is essential to stemming the tide of the toxic drug crisis. It’s essential to removing the stigma around drug use, which is itself vital to ending overdose deaths,” Malcolmson said.

With files from Claire Fenton

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