B.C.’s top health of­fi­cer calls for drug de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page - Lindsay KINES Vic­to­ria Times-Colonist

Bri­tish Columbians should no longer face jail time or a crim­i­nal record for pos­sess­ing small amounts of il­licit drugs for per­sonal use, the pro­vin­cial health of­fi­cer states in a new re­port.

Dr. Bon­nie Henry rec­om­mends the ur­gent pro­vin­cial pol­icy change as way to mit­i­gate the on­go­ing over­dose cri­sis that con­tin­ues to kill three to four peo­ple a day.

Henry says the “war on drugs” is widely rec­og­nized as a failure that does more harm than good by stig­ma­tiz­ing peo­ple who use drugs and pre­vent­ing them from get­ting help.

“De­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of peo­ple who pos­sess a drug that re­flects per­sonal-use-only is, I believe, a nec­es­sary next step for our prov­ince,” she told reporters at the B.C. leg­is­la­ture. “It’s a mech­a­nism we can (use to) stop both the incredibly high toll in B.C. and make harm re­duc­tion ser­vices more ac­ces­si­ble and avail­able to peo­ple who need them.”

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has made clear it has no im­me­di­ate plans to ad­dress drug pol­icy be­yond the re­cent le­gal­iza­tion of cannabis, Henry said.

“But 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,” she writes in her re­port, Stop­ping the Harm: De­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Peo­ple Who Use Drugs in B.C.

“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. This is an important additional step to stem the tide of un­prece­dented deaths.”

Henry says one op­tion would be for Solic­i­tor Gen­eral Mike Farn­worth to use the Po­lice Act to set “broad pro­vin­cial pri­or­i­ties” for deal­ing with peo­ple who use drugs.

“This could in­clude declar­ing a public health and harm re­duc­tion ap­proach as a pro­vin­cial pri­or­ity to guide law en­force­ment in de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing and de-stig­ma­tiz­ing peo­ple who use drugs,” the re­port states.

The ap­proach would use ad­min­is­tra­tive penal­ties in­stead of crim­i­nal charges and al­low po­lice to link peo­ple with health and so­cial ser­vices.

Henry ad­mit­ted that the Po­lice Act has not been used in this con­text be­fore. “But I say what other crises do we need to have to be able to use those pow­ers?”

The other op­tion would be for gov­ern­ment to amend the Po­lice Act to pre­vent po­lice forces from spend­ing money to en­force sim­ple pos­ses­sion of­fences.

“It would ba­si­cally say: ‘That’s not how we’re going to deal with this issue,’” Henry said.

Vic­to­ria Po­lice Chief Del Manak, who at­tended the news con­fer­ence with Henry, said there is al­ready de-facto de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of sim­ple pos­ses­sion in some ju­ris­dic­tions.

“I can tell you from the Vic­to­ria Po­lice De­part­ment’s per­spec­tive, I ded­i­cate zero re­sources to mi­nor drug pos­ses­sion,” he said. “What we do is we tar­get drug traf­fick­ers who use vi­o­lence – whether it’s phys­i­cal vi­o­lence or sex­u­al­ized vi­o­lence – to prey on the most vul­ner­a­ble in our com­mu­ni­ties.”

“That’s where the ef­forts are put,” Manak said.

He ac­knowl­edged, how­ever, that other de­part­ments might take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.

“So per­haps this is an op­por­tu­nity to have a dis­cus­sion with the prov­ince on look­ing at what can we do to come up with some stan­dard­iza­tion and some pol­icy, per­haps even some guid­ance on how po­lice deal with mi­nor drug pos­ses­sion.”

Dr. Keith Ahamad, med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Re­gional Ad­dic­tion Medicine Pro­gram at Van­cou­ver Coastal Health, wel­comed Henry’s call for an end to the prac­tice of crim­i­nal­iz­ing peo­ple who use drugs.

“This decades-old pol­icy has in­flu­enced the health care system to es­sen­tially ig­nore ad­dic­tion as the health issue that it is and has re­ally left us crip­pled to re­spond to an ad­dic­tion cri­sis that we now find our­selves in,” he said. “To save lives, elim­i­nate suf­fer­ing and save tax dol­lars, we must fo­cus on the health of all Bri­tish Columbians.”

Henry noted in her re­port that Por­tu­gal de­crim­i­nal­ized sim­ple pos­ses­sion in 2001.

“Ev­i­dence has shown that this drug pol­icy model, along with other in­ter­ven­tions (e.g., harm re­duc­tion, preven­tion, en­force­ment, and treat­ment strate­gies) has led to an in­crease in treat­ment up­take, a re­duc­tion in drug-re­lated deaths, and im­por­tantly, no in­crease in drug use rates,” the re­port states.


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