Amid overdose-death epidemic, a call to legalize drugs

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry hopes to have a report ready as early as next month detailing what that might look like for British Columbians

B.C.’s provincial health officer is looking seriously at the “de facto decriminalization” of hard drug use and possession in an effort to curb the province’s deadly overdose crisis.

Dr. Bonnie Henry hopes to have a report ready as early as next month detailing what that might look like for British Columbians.

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Henry said she is examining, among other things, Portugal’s model for decriminalization.

In 2001, the European country decriminalized all drugs. Users in Portugal in possession of no more than a 10-day supply of drugs are dealt with administratively — steered toward a dissuasion commission — rather than by criminal courts.

“I’m working right now on a report that has a vision for that,” Henry said.

“We need to have those built-in off-ramps other than taking people to jail.”

Dr. Evan Wood, head of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said decriminalization could be beneficial for the province.

“Treating this as a criminal justice issue is why we have fentanyl,” he said. “It’s why we have so many people with addiction.”

Henry said she is looking into how B.C. could legally decriminalize drug use. Drugs are illegal under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which is federal legislation.

“We can’t wait for the federal government to take action in this province,” she said. “We need to do this to save lives.”

Henry said she hopes to have her report made public by the end of March.

In B.C., 1,489 people died of illicit drug overdoses in 2018 — including 48 in Kamloops, up from 38 the previous year.

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