Provincial health officer calls on B.C. to ‘urgently’ decriminalize possession of illicit drugs

B.C.’s health officer has recommended that the province urgently move to decriminalize possession of illegal drugs for personal use, saying the years-long overdose crisis needs to be treated more as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

In a nearly 50-page report released Wednesday, Dr. Bonnie Henry gave an extensive overview of the policies the province has enacted to stop the overdose crisis since a public health emergency was declared in 2016, but stressed decriminalization is “a fundamental underpinning and necessary” next step of the provincial response.

“We have worked very hard to address the crisis … but I believe it’s time for us to take this work one step further,” Henry told reporters at a news conference at the legislature in Victoria on Wednesday.

“The current criminal justice-based framework in B.C. and in Canada creates barriers to accessing treatment services. It keeps people at home, not talking about their drug use, using alone and dying,” the health officer continued. 

The report cites the more than 244,000 offences under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in B.C. between 2008 and 2017 — 81 per cent of which were for non-violent offences for simple possession. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Henry, as provincial health officer, acts independently in creating her reports and making recommendations to government. She said the sole recommendation out of Wednesday’s report is imploring the province to look at ways to decriminalize people who are in possession of drugs for personal use.

Titled “Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs in B.C.,” the report’s publication comes almost three years after B.C. declared a public health emergency in response to the escalating crisis. 

It calls on two provincial mechanisms to decriminalize people who use drugs.

The first would use the Police Act to allow the minister of public safety and solicitor general to “set broad provincial priorities with respect to people who use drugs.”

Naloxone injections can reverse the effects of an overdose from opioids including heroin and fentanyl. (Martha Dillman/CBC)

“This type of approach would provide pathways for police to link people to health and social services, and would support the use of administrative penalties rather than criminal charges for simple possession,” the report reads.

The second option, which would also use the Police Act, would add a provision preventing any member of a police force in B.C. from using resources on the enforcement of simple possession offences.

“Given that the current regulatory regime is ineffective, harmful and stigmatizing, and in the absence of federal interest in moving away from criminalizing simple possession of controlled drugs, and as the overdose crisis continues, it is incumbent on the province of B.C. to act,” the report reads in part.

Henry stressed that decriminalization would not be the same as legalizing a drug, something that would be done at a federal level.

“What we’re talking about is alternative pathways for people who are caught with small amounts of drugs for personal use,” she said. “Where there are alternatives to incarceration; where there are alternatives to criminal charges.”

At Wednesday’s news conference, Victoria police Chief Del Manak said he agreed with Henry’s recommendation.

“I believe strongly that supporting people who use illicit street drugs is done through public health policy and not through the criminal justice system,” Manak said. 

“Dr. Henry talked about looking at new pathways and new alternatives to the current situation and I couldn’t agree more.”

Taking stock of the crisis

The report runs through the policy options the province has taken since the start of the crisis, including:

  • The expansion of supervised consumption sites.
  • The creation of a ministry dedicated to mental health and addictions.
  • The rapid distribution of publicly funded naloxone kits, along with a number of other policies based on the principles of harm reduction.

It also paints a dire portrait of the toll the crisis has taken.

More than 3,700 people have died from a preventable overdose in B.C. since the public health emergency was declared three years ago, according to the report. 

Overdose deaths have become the leading cause of unnatural death in B.C. since 2016. Last year, there were 4.5 times more overdose deaths than deaths from motor vehicle crashes.

The report also notes overdose deaths in the province have become so pervasive that they contributed to a measurable decrease in life expectancy for British Columbians.

“This is having an impact in our community, across the province, on our entire population,” Henry said.

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