B.C. should decriminalize personal drug possession: top health officer, police chief

“British Columbia cannot ‘treat’ its way out of this overdose crisis, or ‘arrest’ its way out either,” report says

The criminal war on drugs has been a failure, causes harm to addicts in the opioid overdose crisis and needs to end in B.C., the province’s chief medical health officer said April 24.

“I believe we need to focus on a public health and harm reduction approach,” Dr. Bonnie Henry told a media conference.

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She has the backing of at least one municipal police department.

“Supporting people who use drugs is best addressed through the public health system and not the criminal justice system,” Victoria Police Department Chief Del Manak said.

Henry said B.C. should immediately move to decriminalize people possessing controlled substances for personal use. She said it’s another tool in combating the overdose crisis that claimed about 1,500 lives in B.C. in 2018 alone.

“There is widespread global recognition that the failed ‘war on drugs’ and the resulting criminalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs has not reduced drug use but instead has increased health harms,” said a new report by Henry.

But, said Minister of Solicitor General and Public Safety Mike Farnworth, while Victoria is doing what it can to address the crisis, what Henry is suggesting is out of B.C.’s jurisdiction.

“We don’t believe one province can go it alone,” he said. “The reality of it is that substances fall under federal jurisdiction.”

Farnworth said pilot projects underway in Vernon, Abbotsford and Vancouver are supporting law enforcement in linking people with substance issues.

He said the government would be watching those projects with a view to scaling them up for greater use.

“We’re going to be escalating our response to the crisis,” Farnworth said.

The report said channelling people using street drugs through the criminal justice system is not working. Rather, it said, such an approach “exposes non-violent, otherwise law-abiding people to a great deal of harms that they would otherwise not experience.

“The societal stigma associated with drug use leads many to use drugs alone and hidden, increasing their risk of dying. British Columbia cannot ‘treat’ its way out of this overdose crisis, or ‘arrest’ its way out either,” Henry’s report said.

Moreover, said Henry, the decriminalization disproportionately affects women and aboriginal people who find themselves in cycles of survival sex work or criminality they cannot escape.

Henry said rather than prosecute people and send them to jail, administrative responses should be used, much as they are in response to drunk driving offenses.

But, she added, “we still need to build the treatment system and social support system to keep people alive.”

Both Henry and Dr. Keith Ahamad, Vancouver Coastal Health medical director for the regional addiction medicine program, said a work on housing, harm reduction, treatment and decriminalization will boost province approaches to dealing with the health crisis declared three years ago.

Manak agreed. “We need to increase treatment, prevention and education strategies,” he said.

He said his officers no longer arrest users with small amounts but will use those same laws to get violent dealers off the streets.

He said his department’s goal is to support drug users and that he supports overdose prevention and drug consumption sites.

Both said the Criminal Code of Canada and the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act address criminalization of possession of drugs. But, they added, Ottawa has indicated it is not immediately interested in any further major drug policy changes after cannabis legalization last October.

“In the absence of leadership at the [federal] government level, we must look to our provincial government to provide bold leadership,” Ahamad said.

 

Reporter Jeremy Hainsworth can be reached at jhainsworth@glaciermedia.ca

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