Minister rejects decriminalization pitch from top doctor

Mike Youds, April 30, 2019

Packets of the synthetic opioid fentanyl seized by RCMP. (Mike Youds photo)

British Columbia — 

Despite the province’s rejection of a recommendation to decriminalize simple drug possession, an addiction counsellor is confident that the harm reduction strategy will gain acceptance.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth immediately kyboshed the possibility of decriminalizing illicit drug possession after it was strongly urged last week by the province’s provincial health officer as an urgent response to the ongoing opioid crisis.

With the release of her report, Stopping the Harm, Dr. Bonnie Henry concluded that decriminalization of people who are in possession of controlled drugs for personal use would significantly reduce the harms of addiction.

Fatal drug overdoses remain unacceptably high:1,510 people died last year, two years after a provincial emergency was declared to rally resources against the scourge. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, was associated with 85 percent of those deaths.

Decriminalizing possession of illicit drugs would draw addiction out of the shadows and encourage people to seek treatment, said the province’s top physician.

“We want to work toward striking a balance between human rights and public health,” Henry said in a news conference highlighting her conclusions.

In short, decriminalizing drugs would save lives and change “ineffective, harmful and stigmatizing” practices, the report states.

B.C. remains the epicentre of the crisis, a public health threat so severe that it is lowering the average life expectancy in the province. Henry said the province could achieve decriminalization by amending policies that guide police action in laying charges.

“It’s really important that we know that this is not the same as legislation,” to decriminalize, Henry said. “But what we are talking about is an alternative pathway for people caught with small amounts for their own use.”

There are an estimated 100,000 people in the province living with addiction, said the province’s top health official. The crisis disproportionately affects Indigenous populations in B.C.

Decriminalization wouldn’t resolve the crisis, “but we need to start the conversation,” she said.

Del Manak, chief of the Victoria Police Department, agreed with Henry. The crisis is best dealt with through the public health system, he said.

“It’s not just about decriminalization,” Manak said. “We need to improve treatment.”

The provincial government, however, immediately rejected the idea.

Farnworth, minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, said illicit drugs fall under federal jurisdiction and no province can decriminalize drugs on its own.

“It’s not appropriate for me as minister to be directing police on how they conduct their operations,” he said.

Many who work in the field of addictions share Henry’s view.

Natalie Ocean, a clinical counsellor with the Quu’asa program within Teechuktl Mental Health, specializes in addiction. She has worked with First Nations communities for the last five years, focusing on harm reduction approaches.

“I would definitely say, No. 1, that it would make it safer, especially with fentanyl and carfentanil on the market,” said Ocean, who is based in Tofino. Carfentanil is 100 times more toxic than fentanyl.

By shifting from a criminal justice approach to a health care approach, the province could divert resources from enforcement into building bridges to treatment, making it more accessible. Housing, along with supports to address the immediate survival needs of people who are addicted, have been shown to be more effective than punitive deterrents.

Research has also shed light in recent years on the root causes of addiction, Ocean noted. The experience of trauma early in life has come to be viewed as a leading trigger. Criminality can cause more harm than good.

“Often what we see, if a person is addicted, being arrested is a really traumatic situation,” she said. Coming into contact with the law often compounds the problem of addiction because it re-traumatizes those individuals, she added.

Ocean finds the government response to be disappointing, but she is hopeful that change will come.

“These things can take years,” she said. “Putting it out there is a good thing.”