It’s been more than 6 months of drug decriminalization in B.C. What’s changed?

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The B.C. government has said reducing stigma around drug use is a key goal of its decriminalization program, but more than six months into the initiative, some advocates are worried it’s failing so far.

B.C.’s exemption to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act took effect on Jan. 31, allowing adults to possess small amounts of certain drugs — opioids, crack, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA — for personal use.

Brittany Graham, executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said “political backlash” seems to have increased since the onset of the pilot project — the first of its kind in Canada.

For example, many right-wing organizations and politicians have used the policy “as a means to push their own agenda to have more cops,” she explained. Yet no evidence exists to suggest more enforcement is needed, she added.

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“We haven’t seen an increase in public use, we haven’t seen an increase in people being in more parks … and yet there’s multiple news stories about this perceived harm.”

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Municipalities trying to ban drug use in public parks

British Columbia is in the throes of an unabating toxic drug crisis, which as of July, had claimed at least 12,739 lives.

Unregulated drug toxicity is the leading cause of death in the province for people between 10 and 59, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents, and natural diseases combined.

Under decriminalization, the limit on personal substance possession is 2.5 grams. The exemption lasts until Jan. 31, 2026.

According to the B.C. government, “decriminalization is not associated with increase rates of substance use.” It is, however, expected to “help reduce the barriers and stigma that prevent people from accessing life-saving supports and services.”

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B.C. drug advocacy groups marching for International Overdose Awareness Day

In Prince George, one advocate said the policy has failed both to reduce stigma and to effectively decriminalize its intended substance possession.

Katt Cadieux, founder of Uniting Northern Drug Users UNDU’ing Stigma, said RCMP in the central B.C. city continue to confiscate drugs in quantities that are allowed, without leaving a paper trail that they have done so.

“I’m not seeing the redirection that was supposed to take place, connecting (users) to supports and services,” she said. “I’m seeing an increase of police harassment.”

Graham in Vancouver said she’s heard similar reports of increased police interaction with drug users in rural communities, including the seizure of permissible quantities of drugs.

That act alone can be extremely harmful, she added.

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“When people are withdrawing — if they’re detoxing, if there’s a possibility of tremors and really severe flu-like symptoms that can really hurt you, you’re going to make the decision to find something to make myself feel better, right now,” she explained.

“Either you’re going to engage in more illegal activity to be able to purchase illicit substances, or you’re going to go to a dealer that you might not know, that might have a s—– quality of drugs, and your chances of an overdose are significant.”

Prince George RCMP declined to be interviewed for this story, but by email, Cpl. Jenn Cooper said that “with the advent of decriminalization, we continue to receive a high volume of calls for service from members of the public concerned about used needles and broken glass pipes in areas where the public, and in particularly children, are put at risk of injury.”

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“The Safe Streets Bylaw is the only tool available to us to curb open drug use in some areas of the city such as the downtown core.”

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Kelowna mayor wants playgrounds exempt from B.C. drug decriminalization

That bylaw, passed in September 2021, forbids open drug use or disposing of drug paraphernalia on any street, roadway, open space or park in the city. It states that its aim is the “protection, promotion and preservation of the health and safety of the habitants of the City of Prince George to peacefully use and enjoy public spaces.”

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Before cities ban public drug use, Cadieux said they need to ensure that users have safe indoor spaces as an alternative.

“All they’re going to do is create more harm and more death by isolating or forcing people to isolate (and use alone).”

Since January, other bylaw plans similar to Prince George’s have popped up across B.C. — either being considered, in the works, or passed in municipalities like Sicamous, Penticton, Port Coquitlam, Kelowna, and Campbell River.

Nelson has one too, but Mayor Janice Morrison said she believes, in the long-term, having clearly defined areas for drug use will help reduce stigma. As it stands, she said decriminalization alone hasn’t achieved that in her community yet.

“I think what happens is that more people are now seeing people using drugs openly, and I think that’s making it somewhat worse for those that take the drugs, and also for our community that doesn’t understand the complexities of addiction,” she explained.

“We have to find a balance for public safety … both our vulnerable population needs to feel safe that they’re not going to be harassed by people walking down the street or looking sideways at them, or whatever, and the rest of the population also has to feel safe.”

Between January and July, the Nelson Fire Department dealt with 196 overdose calls — more than double the 84 it received in the same timeframe last year. First responders have also dealt with an increase in calls to cleanup leftovers from drug use, including garbage, pipes and needles, Morrison said.

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In Vancouver, police have long operated on a “de facto policy of decriminalization,” Sgt. Steve Addison told Global News. The formal implementation on Jan. 31, therefore, had “little or no impact” on how the force operates.

“Arrests for simple possession were extremely rare prior to decrim, and if they did occur they were almost always tied to another criminal charge or an aggravating factor,” he said in an emailed statement.

“Our priority is, and always has been, to target violent and organized offenders who produce and traffic large amounts of illicit drugs.”

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Almost 2,300 British Columbians died of toxic drug deaths in 2022

Measuring the success of a policy like decriminalization can be difficult; the policy does not legalize the drugs themselves or outline where they can or cannot be used in public, apart from banning school grounds, airports, child-care facilities, Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters.

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Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside, however, said the province is working on an interim progress report that will show what can be measured: Police interactions with people in possession of 2.5 grams or less, changes to the wellbeing of people struggling with substance use, the number of connections made to treatment and mental health services, and general public awareness and understanding of decriminalization.

“That last piece is really connected to really needing to continue to work hard to reduce the stigma that is associated with addictions,” she explained in an interview on International Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31).

Asked whether she felt decriminalization had made progress in the first six months, she said the province wasn’t expecting to see immediate changes.

“We knew that this is such a significant, such a vast culture change in how we’re treating people who are carrying small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use,” Whiteside said.

“What we are seeing, certainly, is a deepening of the relationship and the work between our law enforcement system and our health-care system and our community providers.”

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Vernon councillor calls on province to consider adjusting decriminalization rules

Like Whiteside, Dr. Kora DeBeck, a research scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said she didn’t expect to see major changes in the first six months of the pilot either. Decriminalization is a small change at the policy level, but is “very symbolic” and “very important” stepping stone to broader reform around a critical public health issue, she explained.

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“I think we’re well positioned to succeed within decriminalization, but if we think about succeeding more broadly around how we’re addressing substance use, then we need a much more fulsome intervention,” said DeBeck, who is also an associate professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy.

“From a long-term perspective — moving towards the regulation of drugs … expanding our addiction treatment systems and ensuring that people have access to addiction treatment in the ways that they need, when they want, ensuring that we’re adequately supporting prevention and supporting families when they’re young (and) vulnerable communities.”

In the interim, however, DeBeck, Graham and Cadieux all pointed out a major limitation in decriminalization’s effectiveness on drug users at large — the cap of 2.5 grams.

DeBeck said some people need more than 2.5 grams of their chosen substance to get through the day, or may wish to buy a larger quantity than 2.5 grams when they’ve found a verified supply or a dealer they trust.

“They don’t feel the same protections. (They feel) a frustration in a sense that they are being left out,” said DeBeck of what she’s heard, anecdotally, from users.

Graham and Cadieux flagged that the 2.5-gram threshold also disproportionately impacts rural drug users, who tend to stock up the same way they would with groceries when they’re able to access a supply. The “peace of mind” it extends to some users is not extended to all, Graham said.

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“In more rural places, the grocery stores are only open certain days, and you only have a car a certain day. So what are you going to do? You’re going to buy in bulk,” she explained.

“Why we can’t see that as directly applicable to things like illicit substances, like heroin and crack and methamphetamines, is because we have this stigma around drug use.”

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Within 48 hours of B.C.’s decriminalization pilot taking effect, federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre vowed to scrap it if he becomes prime minister and replace it with more treatment and recovery initiatives. He called the B.C. and Trudeau governments’ response to the overdose crisis an “abject failure.”

At the municipal level, Graham said bylaws restricting public drug use add to the stigma and compromise safety, given that precariously housed people have nowhere else to go.

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“A small percentage of people are choosing to use in public spaces. If they had a home, if they had options, if they had detox services, if they had any of the things that they needed — there’s very few people that would purposely choose to be in a park to use drugs, but we’re not acknowledging that none of those things exist for that person,” Graham said.

“Instead we’re penalizing that individual person.”

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 47 per cent of all unregulated drug deaths in July occurred in private residences, while a third took place in other indoor spaces, such as social and supportive housing units, SROs, shelters, and hotels. Nineteen per cent occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets and parks.

Whiteside said she’d like to see more alignment between all levels of government on the policy and its overarching goals, and further called reports that police are seizing permissible quantities of drugs “concerning.” The B.C. government, she added, will continue to rely on its “very close relationships” with community groups, advocacy organizations, and people with lived and living experience to learn what’s happening on the ground.

“We want to have whatever’s happening at the municipal level be compatible with, and supportive of, our broader efforts around making sure decriminalization is a success,” Whiteside said.

Cadieux in Prince George said she’d be happy to have UNDU sit at the table, as the months continue to pass by and it feels like “decrim doesn’t exist here.”

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— with files from Joshua Azizi 

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