B.C. requests drug decriminalization

News Provincial

Advocates welcome overdose crisis responses

drug decriminalization site graphic
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

May 5 was the five-year anniversary of B.C. declaring the overdose crisis. This anniversary followed the deadliest of those five years, with 1 716 people dying from drug overdose in 2020. 

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson announced that the province would apply to the federal government for an exemption under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize drug possession for personal use. 

Advocacy and outreach groups say they are cautiously optimistic about the government’s plans. But they wish decriminalization was implemented five years ago when the crisis began and before thousands of lives were lost to overdoses. They also point out that while decriminalization is an important step, it needs to be combined with prevention and harm reduction. 

Why decriminalization?

Since the beginning of the overdose crisis in 2016, public health officials have been pushing the province to decriminalize the personal possession of illicit substances. Current supporters include Chief Public Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe.

Decriminalization is the stopping of an act from being a criminal offense. As opposed to legalization, the act is still illegal but criminal charges that carry prison sentences will not be given, however civil charges such as fines may still apply.

When it comes to illicit substances, such as hard drugs, decriminalization often means the allowance of illicit substances for personal use. The limits of personal possession such as quantity and drug type are defined differently depending on the terms of the decriminalization exemption. Additionally, decriminalization can either take a holistic approach and include options for treatment and stigma reduction, or a narrow approach in which the only change is that personal possession is not a crime.

On the federal level, illicit substances are governed under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Under the Section 56 of the Act, provinces and municipalities have to apply for an exemption to allow for the personal possession of certain substances. Drug possession carries mandatory minimum sentences of a year to two years depending on whether or not the amount possessed is over or under one kilogram. 

While the federal government has promised to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences under Bill C-22, they have been reluctant to enact full decriminalization.

Advocates say that a holistic approach to decriminalization is necessary in order to combat the overdose crisis as it will allow for more safe supply sites, stigma reduction, decreased police surveillance and encouragement of people to seek treatment. They say that the criminalization of drugs leads to fewer treatment options and more individuals using at home which research has shown is the biggest risk for overdose deaths. 

Decriminalizing the use of illicit substances also makes it easier for outreach groups such as SOLID and the Vancouver Island Drug Checking Project to obtain and distribute safe supplies of illicit substances. They say that this prevents overdose deaths — through monitoring and preventing the use of drugs cut with dangerous substances such as fentanyl.

Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, says the province has been reluctant in the past to commit to decriminalization due to the lack of public support.

“Everybody who advocates has been yelling [for decriminalization] for years,” McBain told the Martlet. “There’s a lot of stigma around drug use, they want to keep the public happy, and this isn’t something that the public readily understands or agrees to.”

McBain says decriminalization should not be viewed as a silver bullet.  She says that safe supply also needs to be a high priority for the government, as while decriminalization will help overdose prevention sites and other advocacy groups obtain permits for carrying illicit drugs to use for harm reduction, a steady supply also needs to be guaranteed.

“Well, there’s one simple answer, which is also complicated when you roll it out. And that is the safe supply of legal, regulated pharmaceutical grade drugs for people who have substance use disorder or who are addicted,” McBain said when asked about what more the government could be doing. 

She added that any treatment centres, which are included in the $45 million set aside for harm reduction in this year’s provincial budget, need to be evidence-based, safe, and meet patients’ needs.

The process for enacting decriminalization is complex. The federal government needs to approve the B.C. government’s application for an exemption which will need to take into account the myriad of concerns from health authorities, advocacy groups, and the public, and those who use drugs themselves.

What does the exemption entail and when will it be submitted?

Health care and drug policy is, for the most part, in the hands of Canada’s provincial and territorial governments. The Canadian federal government sets out guidelines and helps fund provincial health services, but at the end of the day it is the provincial government that sets policy. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is federal jurisdiction. 

In order to be eligible for the exemption, the province or territory has to prove that there is community support, an exemption will not be a detriment to crime rates, and that the province or territory has the underlying structures and resources to control the substance.

Structures and resources are simply fancy terms for making sure the province or territory has advocacy groups or provincial health organizations with the capacity to manage the process of decriminalization and that these groups also have the necessary funding to do so.

In order to meet the requirements of the exemption, the provincial government has said they are undergoing consultations both with the public and with advocacy groups such as Moms Stop the Harm, SOLID, and PEERs to formulate the application and determine what the limits of decriminalization should be. 

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said there is no timeline for submitting the application to the federal government. The government is working with Health Canada to come up with a plan for consultation.The Ministry also said that Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has asked police to stop arresting citizens for simple drug possession.

One of the initial sticking points in preliminary discussions is over what is the maximum amount allowed for personal possession, says McBain. 

“Different people have different needs for the amounts of drugs they need,” said McBain. “Sounds simple, but the way it’s implemented or the way it’s written as a policy is a little more complex.”

Member of Parliament for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke Randall Garrison told the Martlet that he expects the province to file for the exemption in July based on the time it took for the City of Vancouver to draw up a similar extension. 

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced that the city would apply to the federal government for a municipal exemption to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs in January. The application was officially submitted at the end of May.

Garrison says he supports the actions taken by both the province and the City of Vancouver. He says that he gives a lot of credit to Stewart for being the first to take action on decriminalization within the province. 

Garrison’s NDP colleague Don Davies, the MP for Vancouver-Kingsway, recently put forward a bill at the federal level to implement decriminalization across the country for personal possession and put more federal funding into safe supply and harm reduction programs.

Davies’s bill would also expunge the records of those convicted for drug possession.

“It’s not just about decriminalization, it’s about expunging previous records, it’s about universal access to treatment, and it’s about guaranteeing that there’s a safe supply for drugs for users,” said Garrison.

Garrison says that the bill is an indication of where the federal government’s priorities should be even if, as a private member’s bill put forward by an opposition MP, it is unlikely to pass.

“I’ve been arguing that we need to treat addiction as a health matter and not a criminal matter for more than a decade,” said Garrison.

What’s next?

While the province works on formulating the exemption, McBain says the government should also be focused on what other measures it can implement to reduce the number of deaths as a result of overdose. Already in the first few months of 2021, there have been over 500 overdose deaths in the province.

Many of those who overdose are in their teens or 20s, including many of the children of the parents who run Moms Stop the Harm. There have been calls from advocacy groups such as the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy for the exemption to include drug users under the age of 19 and for more treatment centres to be opened up for youth. 

In the end, McBain says the key is to stop criminalizing drug users and to provide the treatment people need to get over their addictions. She says that it is time to start thinking of the overdose crisis in regards to lives lost and affected, and not on the stigma of drug use.

“There’s been well over 7 000 deaths over the last five or six years in B.C. from toxic drugs,” she said. “That means 7 000 families are in grief forever.”