An East Kootenay advocacy organization is welcoming recommendations from the province’s top doctor that calls for the decriminalization of people who use illicit drugs.
Decriminalization was the key conclusion from the report written by Dr. Bonnie Henry, who analyzed the history of illegal drug overdoses in the province and looked at alternatives to criminal justice approaches to substance use and possession.
Dean Nicholson, the executive director of the East Kootenay Addictions Services Society, says the recommendations in the report have been identified as solutions in other jurisdictions outside the province.
“I think it’s been widely talked about for years that the ‘war on drugs’ approach has, if anything, made drug use more prevalent than it was before,” said Nicholson, “and that the harms associated with criminalizing that kind of behaviour in most cases outweigh the harms from the use itself for most people.”
Nicholson said that decriminalizing wouldn’t apply to production, distribution or trafficking of large amounts of illicit substances, but rather to smaller amounts for personal use. The intent is that people who use illicit drugs would be redirected away from the criminal justice system and towards options such as treatment or education, he added.
While Dr. Henry’s report notes that ideal changes need to be made at the federal level with the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the province can take two approaches to achieving decriminalization for personal use.
One option would be amending the provincial policing policy to allow the Minister of Public Safety to focus on a harm reduction approach that focuses on alternatives to criminal charges and incarceration.
Another recommendation includes amending provincial policing regulations to include a provision that prevents any member of a police force in B.C. from expending resources on enforcement of simple possession offences.
“Given that the current regulatory regime is ineffective, harmful, and stigmatizing, and in the absence of federal interest in moving away from criminalizing simple possession of controlled drugs, and as the overdose crisis continues, it is incumbent on the province of BC to act,” wrote Dr. Henry, in her conclusion.
While regions such as Metro Vancouver and the Okanagan are at the forefront of the opioid overdose crisis, East Kootenay communities are also experiencing the effects.
Nicholson says the EKASS was the first agency in the province that recognized fentanyl, a deadly opioid, was coming into distribution in 2014.
In response, the EKASS has worked closely with organizations such as ANKORS, Interior Health and other community partners to develop local harm reduction committees to provide services such as naloxone kits and expanding methadone replacement programs.
“As a region, we’ve been very proactive and very good at getting equipment out to people to reduce their risk,” Nicholson said.
Dr. Henry’s report noted that deaths from illicit drug overdoses have steadily risen from a baseline average of 250 per year in 2012. Since a public health emergency was declared in 2016, there has been 3,700 deaths attributed to a preventable overdose.
In response, the province has increasingly focused on harm reduction, such as making naloxone more available, and offering supervised consumption and drug-checking services.
“I think the next step that we can look at is given the supply is so toxic and so unpredictable,” said Nicholson, “because it is illegally produced rather than a pharmaceutically produced product, that if there is a way to get people to have a safe and reliable access to supply, then we would probably be reducing a lot of the overdoses which are being caused by people having an unpredictable supply.”
Dr. Henry’s report also identifies other jurisdictions that have decriminalized people who use illicit drugs, such as Portugal, which has reduced health and societal harms of possession.
The Portuguese model dates back to 2001, in which the introduction of a law effectively changed the penalty for simple possession of an illegal drug from a criminal sanction to an administrative process. Anyone charged under the that particular law must appear before a commission that determines options such as dismissal with a warning, referral to health or social services, referral to treatment, fines, or community service.