Although the provincial government has previously asked for a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs — the most recent in as series of requests coming in February — Victoria announced on Wednesday (April 14) that it is now working on an agreement to see the request become a reality.
But the safe supply of drugs remains in its infancy, with a small portion of opioid users having access to a safe supply of government-controlled drugs. The vast majority of deaths involved high concentrations of fentanyl added to other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.
Last month, the federal government announced plans to run four safe supply projects in Vancouver and Victoria, but such a program is not yet found across the province.
The move to decriminalize simple possession of hard drugs comes on the fifth anniversary of B.C. declaring the overdose crisis a public health emergency and comes amid a mounting overdose death toll, with 2021 on pace to be the deadliest year yet.
Since 2016, more than 7,000 people in B.C. have died of overdoses.
"Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone," said Sheila Malcolmson, the province’s minister of mental health and addictions. "Through provincewide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment."
Officials with the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and Health Canada have been working on an agreement that outlines how B.C. will work with Health Canada to apply for a provincewide exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which governs simple drug possession.
Such a Health Canada exemption was granted so supervised drug-use sites can be operated in B.C.
In December, Kamloops council passed a motion that asks the federal government to declare the overdose crisis a national public health emergency and create a Canada-wide overdose action plan, including consideration of decriminalization of possession of illicit drugs.
The provincial NDP government said the overdose crisis has impacted every community in B.C., noting a provincewide exemption must consider the circumstances unique to urban, rural and remote communities. Key issues for consideration are defining simple possession, determining allowable drug amounts and ensuring the readiness of law enforcement, health and social services to support decriminalization.
Also being planned is consultation with various groups, including the Indigenous community, law enforcement, municipalities and public health officials.
In addition, health authorities are hiring new registered nurses who can prescribe addictions treatment medications — with 82 registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses now enrolled to complete their training.
Last year, close to 3,000 people were treated for overdoses were at overdose prevention sites, with no deaths recorded.
The province said there are now more than 23,000 people receiving some form of opioid agonist treatment in B.C. — the most ever in the province.
Earlier this year, the province announced the creation of 10 beds in Kamloops for youth substance use treatment.