Provincial health officer calls for decriminalization of simple possession and use of drugs

The report looks at how the decriminalization of possession and use of illegal drugs for personal use could help turn the tide on the overdose crisis, which was declared a public health emergency three years ago

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, has released her report, Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs in BC, as part of an effort to mitigate the provincial overdose crisis.

The report looks at how the decriminalization of possession and use of illegal drugs for personal use could help turn the tide on the overdose crisis, which was declared a public health emergency three years ago.

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Henry is urging the provincial government to consider decriminalization, which means possession of illegal drugs for personal use would not lead to incarceration or a criminal record.

"Experts, including people with lived experience, agree that our existing drug laws are further stigmatizing people living with addiction, a chronic, relapsing health condition," Henry said. "The decriminalization of people who are in possession of drugs for personal use is the next logical and responsible step we must take to keep people alive and connect them to the health and social supports they need."

The report outlines how stigma leads many people who use drugs to hide their usage and creates barriers to using harm-reduction and treatment services. Henry said prohibition-based drug policies and strategies are significant contributors to the “deep-rooted shame and blame associated with illegal drug use.”

She said evidence shows that criminalizing people who use drugs does more harm than good, noting decriminalization is a way for law enforcement to help people living with addiction connect to the supports they need.

"We are scaling up evidence-based treatment and recovery services like opioid agonist treatment, harm-reduction measures and the provision of a safer drug supply," Henry said. "But we need to do more. We need to decriminalize people in possession of controlled substances for personal use so that we can protect them from the highly-toxic street drug supply and curtail the mounting number of preventable overdose deaths in B.C."

Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr agrees with Henry’s report.

"Supporting people who use illicit street drugs is best addressed through a comprehensive public health strategy and not through the criminal justice system,” Serr said. “We will continue to target those who import, produce and distribute illicit street drugs; however, arresting for personal possession will not decrease the demand for street drugs. We need to increase treatment, prevention and education strategies to effect real change.”

In response to Dr. Henry’s report, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Mike Farnworth, said he doesn’t believe a single province could “go it alone” when it comes to decriminalization, noting this was the case with the legalization of cannabis.

“Possessing these substances is still illegal under federal law. No provincial action can change that,” Farnworth told reporters during a press conference Wednesday.

Police, however, are already working on innovative strategies in this area, Farnworth said, noting pilot projects in Abbotsford, Vancouver and Vernon where police refer people to treatment instead of the criminal justice system in an effort to reduce the fear of reporting an overdose.

Farnworth said he’ll look closely at the results from these pilot projects, which are due in the fall, and see if they can be expanded to other areas.

He stressed the issue of drug addiction is a complex one and noted examples of steps the government has taken to address it in other ways such as investing in housing, creating a poverty reduction strategy, establishing a separate ministry of mental health and addictions and safe injection sites.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Farnworth said.

Dr. Keith Ahamad, medical director of the regional addiction medicine program with Vancouver Coastal Health and clinician scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said criminalizing people who use drugs fosters mistrust with the health system and discourages people who need and want care from seeking it.

“Further, it creates an atmosphere of stigma towards this patient population who are regularly turned away by health-care providers who don't understand that addiction is a health issue, not a criminal justice one,” Ahamad said. “Decriminalizing people who use drugs represents a critical step in ending this public health emergency."

At least 30 countries, including Portugal, Australia, Spain, Uruguay, Norway, Chile and some U.S. jurisdictions, are looking into or have implemented policies that decriminalizes simple possession and use of controlled substances. In 2001, Portugal adopted a decriminalization approach to drug possession for personal use in response to an unprecedented growth in heroin addiction, overdose and HIV.

In B.C., more than 3,000 people have died by overdose in the last two years, while the Ministry of Health estimates more than 115,000 people are living with opioid use disorder in B.C., with only a small percentage receiving treatment.

Henry’s full report can be read here.



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