On the fifth anniversary of declaring B.C.’s public health emergency for overdose deaths, B.C. will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs.
Since April 14, 2016, the BC Coroners Service reports illicit drugs have claimed the lives of at least 7,072 British Columbians.
“Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone,” Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said.
“Through province-wide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment.”
Officials with the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and Health Canada have been working on an agreement that outlines how the Province of B.C. will work with Health Canada to apply for a province-wide exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which governs simple drug possession.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, Premier John Horgan and police chiefs across B.C. have been calling on the federal government to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs.
A new record high was set in 2020, with 1,724 lives lost in B.C. An additional 329 deaths took place in the first two months of 2021.
“Today, we remember and grieve the thousands of people who have lost their lives in B.C. due to a toxic illicit drug supply,” Lapointe said.
“I extend my heartfelt condolences to all of those who have lost a beloved family member or friend as a result of the unscrupulous and profit-driven illicit drug market. The tragic loss of these thousands of individuals underlines the urgent need for a substantial shift in our provincial and national response to problematic substance use.”
Lapointe and Henry have been pushing for access to a safer drug supply. This would also include additional addiction support for those seeking safe supply.
The province has put in temporary measures during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow better access to opioids through prescription. British Columbia has seen a spike in illicit drug deaths during the pandemic due to an increase in people using alone and disruption to the international supply of illicit drugs.
“The opposite of addiction is connection. More than ever before we need to connect with those using drugs with compassion and love. We need to be bold with addressing these complex issues” Henry said.
“We need to put the same resources in dealing with this crisis as we have with the pandemic.”
The province says since 2018, more than 6,000 deaths have been averted because of expanded access to overdose prevention services including wide availability and naloxone.
Currently, more than 23,000 people are receiving some form of opioid agonist treatment in B.C. – more than at any other time.
First Nations communities have been particularly impacted by the overdose crisis. The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) reports between January and May 2020, 89 First Nations individuals died in B.C. due to illicit drug toxicity – a 93 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2019.
During that period, 16 per cent of all drug toxicity deaths in B.C. were Indigenous people, who account for just 3.3 per cent of the province’s population.
“The data underscores the immense toll that illicit drug toxicity is having on the lives of Indigenous people and their communities in B.C.,” acting FNHA chief medical officer Dr. Shannon McDonald said.
“That the opioid crisis continues to wreak havoc on Indigenous people five years after the B.C. government’s declaration of a public health emergency on opioid use is a clear indication that there is still much more to be done to resolve this tragic public health issue.”