B.C.’s top doctor says that if the province wants to stop illicit drugs from wiping out thousands of people, it must decriminalize street drugs.
In her report Wednesday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the country’s approach in its war on drugs has criminalized and stigmatized drug users – arresting and punishing them – instead of treating the current state of drug use as what is ultimately a health issue.
“In the context of the continuing overdose crisis that is affecting families and communities across B.C., the province cannot wait for action at the federal level,” Henry wrote.
“Immediate provincial action is warranted, and I recommend that the Province of B.C. urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use.”
The federal government has said they won't change any drug policy time and time again. But Henry says she believes B.C. can do more.— Ashley Wadhwani (@ashwadhwani) April 24, 2019
" Law enforcement and health officials recognize that BC cannot arrest its way out of the overdose crisis." pic.twitter.com/SLK3LScEZr
Henry has also urged the federal government to regulate access to controlled drugs. Her calls for a clean supply of legal opioids follow similar calls by her predecessor Dr. Perry Kendall and B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.
Roughly four people die each day of an overdose in B.C. More than 3,000 have died since 2017.
The province has the power to decriminalize drug use and eliminate criminal possession charges in two ways through the Police Act, Henry said. The federal Constitution Act gives provincial legislatures the power to make or change its laws as an administration of justice.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth can implement a “harm reduction approach” that allows police to link drug users to health and social services. Or, he can include a provision within the legal framework to prevent police officers from enforcing simple possession.
“If the intention of a prohibition-based system was to protect individuals from harms inherent to substance use, then this policy approach has significantly failed to achieve this goal at an individual or population level,” Henry wrote.
“Evidence shows that this approach has had the opposite effect and has substantially increased harms. Law enforcement and health officials recognize that B.C. cannot arrest its way out of the overdose crisis.”
At least 30 countries - including Portugal, Australia, Spain, Uruguay, Norway, Chile and some U.S. jurisdictions - are exploring, or have in place, an alternative policy option that decriminalizes people for simple possession and use of controlled substances.
Black Press Media has reached out to the public safety ministry and the B.C. RCMP for comment.
The 47-page report details the many methods so far taken by both the provincial and federal governments to avert an estimated 60 per cent of possible overdose deaths since Kendall declared a public health emergency in B.C. in April 2016.
Initiatives highlighted by Henry include rapid distribution of free naloxone kits, the rollout of overdose prevention sites, and the creation of a separate mental health and addictions ministry. She also noted the federal Good Samaritan law, which ensures police officers are not among the first responders to attend 911 overdose call. This is to remove the drug user’s fear of being criminally charged.
“Despite these life-saving activities, the BC Coroners Service reports that the number of deaths has continued to rise and remains at consistently high levels throughout the province,” the report said, especially affecting Indigenous people and men aged 30 to 59 years old.
One substantial factor in the ongoing overdose crisis is B.C.’s highly toxic illegal supply of fentanyl and carfentanil, Henry said, both of which are almost completely displacing diverted prescription opioids and illegal heroin.
A more comprehensive report is expected in coming months, according to the health ministry, and will examine overdose deaths, response efforts, and some related impacts of overdose deaths, including a drop in life expectancy at birth for all British Columbians.