OPINION: Time to decriminalize drugs

Last week, Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s top health officer, issued an urgent call to the provincial government to immediately decriminalize possession of illegal drugs for personal use.

In her 50-page report, she articulates a powerful evidence-based argument for decriminalization but also lays out a road map of further actions needed to put a stop to this pervasive, family and community devastating, yet preventable health crisis.

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B.C. has had some success in curtailing the rise in opioid deaths with a focus on harm reduction including wide distribution of Naloxone, overdose prevention, rapid access and an increasing range of treatment services, drug checking services, and efforts to reduce the societal stigma of drug use. Although these initiatives have saved lives and the number of deaths has begun to plateau, (1,486 in 2017, 1,510 in 2018) the crisis is still devastating and should be acted on immediately.

One of the most revealing (and shocking) statistics from the report relates to deaths per 100,000 in B.C. compared to jurisdictions with progressive drug policies. In Portugal, the standard bearer for decriminalization since 2011, the 2018 opioid-related death rate is 0.39 per 100,000 while the average in Europe is 2.1. In B.C. it is a staggering 31.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018.

Our drug policies of prohibition have been an utter failure.

They not only fuel crisis in our communities but have actually helped create the toxic drug supply issues of today. The importation of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil — drugs that are so toxic and powerful for their size — has replaced the importation of naturally derived opioids such as heroin. The irony is not lost.

Last March, I wrote a column in these pages calling for the decriminalization of drugs while using the platform as chair of the 2018 BC Mayors’ Caucus to urge provincial mayors to flex their collective voice in this call.

What I discovered was that although there were some very progressive mayors in the province, the majority are politically cautious and do not want to take leadership on seemingly controversial issues.

And some mayors simply cannot see the bigger picture and costs to both human and financial for self-righteous reasons.

As Dr. Henry’s report states, we cannot arrest our way out of the overdose crisis.

Her call to action is not only for the province but also for B.C. mayors and councils to finally show leadership on this heartbreaking issue that affects us all.

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