First step or misstep? Mixed reaction to B.C. drug decriminalization

Click to play video: 'Reaction to decriminalization of drugs in B.C.'
Reaction to decriminalization of drugs in B.C.
WATCH: Reaction to the project is getting mixed reviews. While some want to see drug use de-stigmatized -- others want to see other supports put in place to fully complement a decriminalization initiative. Paul Johnson has that story. – Jan 30, 2023

British Columbia’s pilot project to decriminalize possession of small quantities of some drugs either doesn’t go far enough, or is a potentially dangerous misstep, depending on who you ask.

The province is set to embark on a three-year experiment Tuesday, built on a three-year federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

That exemption will allow drug users to carry up to 2.5 grams of opioids like heroin or fentanyl, crack and powdered cocaine, or methamphetamines and MDMA. Under the program, police will not confiscate small quantities of drugs from people, and will instead hand out information on recovery options.

First step or misstep?

Speaking on CKNW’s The Mike Smyth Show, harm reduction and recovery advocate Guy Felicella described the initiative as a “good first step,” which will help reduce the stigma drug users face.

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That stigma, he said, is a key reason why many people use drugs alone, often leading to fatal overdoses.

Decriminalization will also keep many people from the cycle of incarceration, allowing them to begin to stabilize their lives.

“If you get caught up in criminalization it’s very hard to get out, it’s very hard to get support and guess what, you’re incarcerated instead of having an option go to a rehabilitation centre,” he said.

“Getting employment or trying to find housing, all of those aspects with a criminal record make it extremely challenging.”

But some critics worry the move could actually make the province’s drug crisis worse.

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s 3-year drug decriminalization trial starts Tuesday'
B.C.’s 3-year drug decriminalization trial starts Tuesday

Julian Somers, an SFU health sciences professor who focuses on substance use and mental health, said his research has shown that fewer than four per cent of people with substance use disorders who end up in prison are there because of simple possession.

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More than half, he said, were imprisoned for theft and about 10 per cent for violent incidents linked to serious mental health issues.

“They have no support getting jobs, they’re often out on the streets, and that revolving door is turned not by possession offences, but by having to steal things in neighbourhoods,” he told CKNW.

“Decriminalization is turning a blind eye to all of those actual factors causing that revolving door and pretending as though it’s going to make some kind of difference while we waste time.”

James Harry, founder of All Nations Outreach Society and an outreach worker with the Haisla Nation, said he worried decriminalization would embolden drug dealers by giving them a “free pass.”

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“We all know it doesn’t take 2.5 grams worth of fentanyl to kill somebody,” he said. “How many lives are going to get lost in the process?

“How many kids are going to be taken away … How many families are going to be broken?”

BC Liberal mental health and addictions critic Elenore Sturko said her party supports decriminalization, but that the province has failed to do the groundwork to make it successful, given the pilot project was announced in June.

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‘I was so worried about how everyone would perceive my husband’s death’ 

“I would have hoped we would have had announcements much earlier so that instead of just saying things will be coming in the future that we were ready to have treatment options and pathways to recover open for people today,” she said.

“We’re lacking a significant amount of access to treatment, access to recovery and other supports that are necessary and actually were part of the agreement with the federal government in allowing them to go forward with this pilot.”

The provincial government said it has hired health authority-specific positions to bridge the gaps between those using illicit drugs and organizations working in the community to help them.

It said has also expanded access to low- or no-cost counselling services, opened 14 Foundry youth centres across the province and expanded treatment and recovery services for everyone.

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Does it go far enough?

While advocates for drug users have called decriminalization a good first step, they say the province needs to expand access to safer drugs if it wants to stem the tide of deaths.

More than 1,800 people died of suspected illicit drug overdoses in the first 10 months of 2022, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

B.C. has implemented pilot projects that allow doctors and nurse practitioners to prescribe opioids to people with substance use disorders.

Click to play video: '‘Many people are dying alone’: Bonnie Henry on why drug decriminalization is important'
‘Many people are dying alone’: Bonnie Henry on why drug decriminalization is important

But Felicella said of an estimated 55,000 people with a diagnosed substance use disorder in B.C., only a tiny fraction actually have access to safe supply.

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People who use drugs and who have not been diagnosed have no access, he said.

“We need a full-on medical scope because some people will benefit from getting medical or prescribed substances, but we also need another pathway outside of the medical model as well, where people won’t need a prescription to purchase their substances, and they will have known doses of what substances they are consuming,” he said.

“The biggest thing you can do is empower somebody who uses drugs by knowing exactly what they’re taking and how much they’re taking — this in itself would really change the narrative of the amount of people dying that would that would save lives.”

Click to play video: '‘The goal is to reduce the stigma’: B.C.’s drug decriminalization trial starts Tuesday'
‘The goal is to reduce the stigma’: B.C.’s drug decriminalization trial starts Tuesday

Correne Antrobus, a drug policy advocate with Moms Stop the Harm, said decriminalization may help with breaking down the stigma of drug use, but it won’t stop the deadly overdoses.

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“It will not stop the deaths. And that’s what I’d like our governments to focus on,” she said.

Antrobus went public with her efforts to help a daughter struggling with drug use in 2017, describing to Global News how she bought street drugs for the 27-year-old because of long waits to get her access to methadone treatment.

“Not a lot has changed. We still struggle, and what has gotten worse is the poisoned supply. It’s just like Russian roulette every day,” she said.

“Now there are very small pilot projects for safe supply, and it is not enough and it’s not big enough. We need that as well to keep people alive while they perhaps seek treatment.”

Antrobus said access to treatment and recovery in British Columbia remains inadequate.

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s drug criminalization pilot program set to kick in'
B.C.’s drug criminalization pilot program set to kick in

The province doesn’t have nearly enough beds for those who need them, and the ones that are available are usually private and far outside the financial means of those who need them, she said.

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“I would like there to be treatment options. I don’t understand what the problem is.”

“If they want treatment — it should be available, not months and months wait; and we need safe supply to keep them alive to that point.”

Somers, meanwhile, argued safe supply is not the panacea advocates believe it is.

He said more effort needs to go into addressing the mental health and social conditions that lead people into a life of addiction.

“The causes of the addiction crisis here are not a toxic drug supply … it is people who are living in despair,” he told CKNW.

“Suicidal thoughts overlap about 50 per cent of the time with people on their first poisoning attempt, we have to recognize that this is a part of a larger problem. It is not about the supply, it is about the demand for drugs.”

British Columbia’s decriminalization pilot will run until Jan. 31, 2026.

Under the pilot, drugs will remain illegal, and both the federal and provincial governments say they will work together to monitor indicators related to health and criminal justice.

Possession of illegal substances will remain prohibited on K-to-12 school premises, at licensed child-care facilities, in certified airports, on Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters, for Canadian Forces members subject to the Code of Service Discipline, in a motor vehicle or watercraft operated by a minor, when the illegal substances are readily accessible to the operator of a motor vehicle or watercraft and for anyone under the age of 18.


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