2.5 grams for drug decriminalization in B.C. is not enough: advocates

Peer workers on the frontlines of the toxic drug crisis in Vancouver say decriminalizing 2.5 grams is not enough. Crystal Laderas reports.

Drug policy advocates in B.C. feel ignored after the province was granted an exemption period to decriminalize 2.5 grams of certain drugs for personal use.

“For a lot of people a gram is just like breakfast. So two and a half grams is nothing. They’re going to have to go out there just constantly buying. It’s ridiculous,” Lorna Bird, president of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, told CityNews.

VANDU and other groups gave recommendations to the B.C. government during its application for a Health Canada exemption for small possession and suggested 4.5 grams because they say 2.5 grams is not enough.

“It wasn’t any users that got to be on this table who never decided … this is going to be like the two and a half grams … All it was police that decided how much it’s going to be. And how do they know?”

Bird warns people will now be forced to make a number of trips to find drugs under the constraints of this exemption.

She adds, it is counterproductive and potentially dangerous for drug users as it could lead to people purchasing toxic supplies, leading to more deaths.

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Federal Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said this is a start, even though it’s lower than the 4.5 grams B.C. asked for.

“Think about the people that are going to die, so you need to raise this amount. Otherwise, there are going to be people dying. I hope you sleep good at night thinking about that,” Bird responded.

The exemption announced Tuesday will apply to all adults over the age of 18 in B.C. Personal possession only up to a cumulative amount of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA are included in this.

Charges will not be laid against anyone in the province possessing 2.5 grams or less of drugs starting January 31st and expiring three years later.

In 2016, 115 youth in B.C. died of an overdose, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. So, Kali Sedgemore is concerned about the exemption not applying to those 18 and under.

“The age range is concerning because also youth buy large amounts of drugs too. So now it’s gonna be like are they going to be targeted by police? … It’s not going to help the situation, it might kill more youths that way,” they said especially since young people oftentimes pool their money together to buy drugs so the 2.5 grams will not be enough.

Leslie McBain with Moms Stop the Harm is taking issue with some of the language around policing, saying she and others feel “police have way too much power.”

“They should not even really be involved in people using drugs. This is a private and health matter, not a criminal justice matter, and police should just step back — especially for these small amounts.”

However, when it comes to addressing stigma, McBain says this move is one on the right track.

“Decriminalization — just the word itself will help reduce stigma. Often the public is confused, for good reason, by what decriminalization means,” McBain explained.

But overall, McBain and Moms Stop the Harm note the only thing that will stop deaths is a safe, regulated, legal supply.

She says she and other advocates have met with Malcolmson to express their concerns, adding decriminalization alone won’t stop people from dying.

“The only thing that will save lives is taking away some of the black market, as much as we can, and implementing a safe supply,” she told CityNews, adding she also wants to see the threshold increased.

B.C. declared a public health emergency in April of 2016 over a record number of opioid-related deaths. Since then, more than 9,500 people have died, with experts warning the toxicity of drugs has only worsened over the years.

The latest figures available show 165 people lost their lives in B.C. to toxic drugs in March 2022. That figure represents a five per cent decrease from the same month last year, as well as a five per cent decrease from February 2022.

“Every life lost is a tragedy,” B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said on May 3, 2022, adding the province “remains committed to doing what it takes to turn the tide on this crisis.”

– With files from Hana Mae Nassar and Denise Wong

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