B.C.’s provincial health officer is urging the the government to look at the decriminalization of people who use drugs.
In a report released Wednesday, Dr. Bonnie Henry says the change is an important step in dealing with the province’s ongoing overdose crisis.
“The bad news is we are not there yet, and we still need to build the support system for people in this province who use drugs,” Henry said.
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“Despite a number of significant initiatives, the number of people dying is far too high. What issue that has not been addressed yet is the decriminalization of people who use drugs.”
The report falls short of calling on the federal and provincial governments to provide clean, hard drugs to addicted users. However, Henry has been supportive of a clean drug supply and will continue to advocate for it.
Henry says the federal government has shown no interest in addressing this issue before the upcoming election, but there are things the province can do.
“The challenge is the Criminal Code is a federal code,” Henry said.
“You can do regulations that are set up and say: ‘If these are the circumstances, this is the road we take.'”
Decriminalization means that the possession of illegal drugs for personal use would not lead to incarceration or a criminal record.
“Experts, including people with lived experience, agree that our existing drug laws are further stigmatizing people living with addiction, a chronic, relapsing health condition,” Henry said.
“The decriminalization of people who are in possession of drugs for personal use is the next logical and responsible step we must take to keep people alive and connect them to the health and social supports they need.”
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The report finds that stigma often leads drug users to hide their usage and creates barriers to accessing harm reduction and treatment services.
Henry says the evidence shows that criminalizing people who use drugs does more harm than good.
“This is not the same as legalization. What we are talking about is alternative pathways for people that are caught with substances for their own use where there are alternatives to criminal charges and incarceration,” Henry said.
“We need to decriminalize people in possession of controlled substances for personal use so that we can protect them from the highly toxic street drug supply and curtail the mounting number of preventable overdose deaths in B.C.”
Henry’s report has the support of many law enforcement officials, including Abbotsford police Chief Mike Serr and Victoria police Chief Del Manak.
“Supporting people who use illicit street drugs is best addressed through a comprehensive public health strategy and not through the criminal justice system,” Serr said.
“We will continue to target those who import, produce and distribute illicit street drugs. However, arresting for personal possession will not decrease the demand for street drugs. We need to increase treatment, prevention and education strategies to effect real change.”
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But B.C.’s public safety minister said he is cool to the idea, saying B.C. doesn’t have the jurisdiction to enact it.
“We all agree on supporting police and first responders to get more people to the care that they need, however possessing these substances is still illegal under federal law,” Farnworth said.
“We don’t believe that one province can go it alone and the reality is that these substances controlled substances fall under federal jurisdiction.”
However on the ground, law enforcement officers have expressed support.
Metro Vancouver Transit Police Chief Dave Jones said if anything it starts the dialogue towards change.
“We all have different roles to play in trying to make our society safer and better, so whether it be those responsible for cities or for transportation through numerous cities, these are educated people and people who are involved in the health system who are coming out and taking these positions,” he said.
“I think it’s important that we listen to them.”
According to the chief medical health officer’s office, at least 30 countries are exploring or have put in place an alternative policy option that decriminalizes people for simple possession and use of controlled substances.
Portugal leads the way, having adopted a decriminalization approach to drug possession for personal use, a system that been endorsed by federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
Over 3,000 people in B.C. have died by overdose in the last two years.