Decriminalizing illicit drugs: Is BC ready for it?


British Columbia this week began a three-year decriminalization experiment, under which drug users aged 18 and over will not be charged or arrested or have their drugs seizedif found in possession ofup to 2.5 grams of drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.

The goal is to reduce the shame and stigma surrounding drug use, which the province says keeps people from accessing life-saving services.

THIS EXEMPTION DOES NOT MEAN DRUGS ARE LEGALIZED. Drug possession in any amount will continue to be a criminal offence on K-12 school grounds and at licensed child care facilities. Further, decriminalization does not apply to youth 17 and younger. Youth found in possession of any amount of illegal drugs are subject to the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act, which offers them alternatives to criminal charges in some cases.

According to health officials, decriminalization is a harm-reduction strategy part of a long term complex fight against toxic drug crisis in BC. “We know criminalization drives people to use alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply, using alone can be fatal,” said Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving supports. This is a vital step to get more people connected to the services and supports as the Province continues to add them at an unprecedented rate.”

As the province begins its journey with this monumental shift in drug policy; groups, individuals and political parties have expressed varied opinion on this decision. Harm-reduction advocates and those who deal with drug usersand have seen their pain,welcomed the decision.

Where as others were apprehensive about this approach, criticizing government that this move could further escalate and complex, BC’s fight against toxic drug deaths.

Former Alberta premier Jason Kenny, in a statement last year had said, “This action will likely result in a dramatic increase in drug use, violence, trafficking, and addiction. Something that health systems are already overburdened with.”

BC Conservative leader Trevor Bolin believes the BC NDP’s decriminalization of hard drugs is nothing more than a means to hide the tragedy of drug addiction. “Instead of Premier Eby committing to the funding so desperately needed in mental health and addictions – they, along with the Liberal party of Canada, have given up communities and families,” Bolin continued. “Our children have been taught for decades that hard drugs ruin families, and their effects are in plain sight on our streets with the most vulnerable losing their lives.”

BC Liberals MLA Elenore Sturko, Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Addictions, and Recovery said that BC is “unprepared to roll out this untried policy.”   According to her B.C. has fallen short of meeting the very specific actions and commitments outlined in the Government of Canada’s Letter of Requirements to support B.C.’s decriminalization.“Harm reduction efforts like decriminalization form only part of the comprehensive approach that’s needed to help put an end to this crisis that continues to claim six lives a day,” added Sturko. “Not only is the NDP unprepared, but for the last five years, it’s also failed to place any emphasis on the implementation and funding of prevention, recovery, and treatment programs.” BC government, on the hand,claims that to prepare for decriminalization, the Province has worked with police leaders to develop training resources and practical guidance, which are now available to more than 9,000 front-line police officers. Minister Whiteside informed that the Province is building new pathways into the health-care system by hiring health authority specific positions dedicated to building connections with local service providers and people referred by police. These positions will also help connect people with resources and information on voluntary mental-health and addictions supports in their own community. It has also expanded access to low- or no-cost counselling services, opened 14 Foundry youth centres across the province and expanded treatment and recovery services for everyone. Many experts feel that decriminalization is a positive step but more needs to be done.