Advocate pushes back as 3 Metro Van councillors call for end to decriminalization

A group of city councillors in Metro Vancouver say they want to put a stop to B.C.’s drug decriminalization pilot project, Kier Junos reports, after the state of Oregon cancelled its three-year pilot last month.

An advocate for drug users is pushing back on calls for B.C. to end its decriminalization program, saying that move will not decrease toxic drug deaths.

Garth Mullins’ response comes after councillors Danial Fontaine from New Westminster, Linda Annis from Surrey, and Alexa Loo in Richmond issued a joint statement calling for their respective cities to stop endorsing the pilot, and encourage the province to put more resources into treatment and rehabilitation.

Their call follows Oregon’s recent decision to repeal decriminalization in the U.S. state and offer people treatment options instead.

Mullins says decriminalization has never been fully embraced, adding cutting these programs will have a detrimental effect. With more than 14,000 people killed by toxic drugs since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016, he says the stakes are high.

“We’re just losing everybody and until the government actually embraces wholeheartedly the things that we know will save people, we’re not going to see those numbers go down,” he told CityNews Monday.

In a joint statement, Fontaine, Annis, and Loo call the three-year program, which began on Jan. 31, 2023, a “deadly decriminalization experiment.”

Fontaine says the community is struggling, and claims the province’s “decision to ignore the Oregon reversal and continue with its deadly legalized drug experiment in British Columbia means more street disorder, more crime, and more deaths.”

“The time has really come for the adults to come back into the room and say, ‘This is really not tolerable.’ And we need to be making sure that the entire community is safe,” Fontaine explained.

“We have not made adequate investments in drug rehabilitation, drug treatments, mental health supports, and I would add to that even housing.”

In a statement, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside says ending decriminalization wouldn’t lead to better outcomes for drug users, saying that: “By decriminalizing people who use drugs, we are treating addiction as a health care issue and making it easier for people to reach out for help in an emergency and connect to care.” 

But Loo says that for B.C. to “dismiss the news from Oregon” as well as what’s happening “on our own streets … is naïve and dangerous.”

“More than 2,500 British Columbians died from drugs last year. At what point do we say B.C.’s legalized drug experiment isn’t working? The recent news that these deadly drugs are being sold and used in our hospitals has to be the last straw. In Oregon, their experience with decriminalization was terrible and getting worse, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing here in British Columbia. The provincial and federal governments need to end this decriminalization mistake. The fact is, no community is immune from the fallout of decriminalization, and we need some serious common sense and compassion to turn this around,” the Richmond councillor added.

However, Mullins says the point of decriminalization isn’t to “get us clean or solve all other problems in society.”

“Throwing us all back into jail is not going to change anything, and these two things do not need to be one or the other — you can have treatment as well as decriminalization,” Mullins explained.

“Decriminalization doesn’t do anything about the toxic drugs. We need to handle that separately — that’s safe supply — and the same people who are against decriminalization are against safe supply.”

B.C. became the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize the possession of up to 2.5 grams of hard drugs including cocaine, heroin, meth, and ecstasy. This was part of a pilot project to reduce barriers that keep people from accessing life-saving services, including safer supply programs.

The province was able to do so after Health Canada approved B.C.’s request to be granted an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in May 2022.

At the time, the provincial government said the decriminalization move was being made in part to “take steps to treat addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one.”

Proponents of the program have echoed Mullins’ points, stressing decriminalization was meant to prevent people in possession of a small amount of drugs from entering the criminal justice system.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe also said in January that the goal of decriminalization is to help reduce stigma and encourage people who use drugs to seek life-saving services and care.

“It’s to reduce harms. This idea is not radical,” she said. “Decriminalization is not responsible for these deaths … Illicit fentanyl is responsible for these deaths.”

Lapointe explained there is no evidence to suggest that the general public is at risk from public drug use.

Oregon to recriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs

On Monday, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed into law a bill that recriminalizes the possession of small amounts of drugs, ending a first-in-the-nation experiment with decriminalization that was hobbled by implementation issues.

The new law rolls back a 2020 voter-approved measure by making so-called personal use possession a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. It also establishes ways for treatment to be offered as an alternative to criminal penalties by encouraging law enforcement agencies to create deflection programs that would divert people to addiction and mental health services instead of the criminal justice system.

Measure 110, approved by voters with 58 per cent support in 2020, made the personal use possession of illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine only punishable by a ticket and a maximum fine of $100. Supporters said treatment is more effective than jail in helping people overcome addiction and the decades-long approach of arresting people for possessing and using drugs hasn’t worked.

Oregon’s changes take effect Sept. 1.

-With files from Kier Junos and The Associated Press

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