PAN has recently written a letter of support to Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer, thanking her for the Special Report Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of people who use drugs in BC. The report was released three years after her predecessor Dr. Perry Kendall declared a public health emergency in response to the ever escalating crisis of overdose and overdose deaths in this province. With nearly 100 people dying every month, this is a crisis that is by no means over and without an end in sight.
This unacceptable situation continues despite the very best efforts of community-based organizations and peers working on the front lines. It continues despite significant investments by the province in the overdose response. Why? In the context of a highly toxic illegal drug supply, the report correctly identifies ongoing criminalization of people who use drugs, as a contributing factor to this crisis. Dr. Henry makes the recommendation that “the Province of BC urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use” (page 36). Leading up to the recommendation is an explanation of the differences between decriminalization vs. legalization (chapter 4, page 24). Such a move in BC would not be without precedent – Portugal’s move to do the same occurred many years ago.
The report cites two provincial mechanisms that could allow for de facto decriminalization of personal drug use. The first would use the Police Act to allow the minister of public safety and solicitor general to set broad provincial priorities with respect to people who use drugs. “This type of approach would provide pathways for police to link people to health and social services, and would support the use of administrative penalties rather than criminal charges for simple possession,” the report reads (Executive Summary, page 5).
The second option, which also would use the Police Act, would add a provision preventing any member of a police force in B.C. from using resources for 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,” the report reads (Chapter 5, page 38).
Immediately upon the release of the report, Mike Farnworth, BC’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, said he would not act on the PHO’s recommendations. This was greatly disappointing. PAN was one of the signatories on a joint letter sent to Minister Farnworth on June 11, calling upon him to reconsider, pointing out “Your ministry and the Province bear responsibility to ensure the health and safety of people who use drugs.” We have yet to receive a response from the Minister, but when we do, we will share the information here. In the meantime, we continue to thank Dr. Henry for her leadership, the stance taken, recommendations made, and her evidence-based approach. Finally, we fully agree with her statement: “In the interest of protecting the health and safety of British Columbians, a more compassionate approach is needed, based on public health and human rights” (p. 24, emphasis mine).
Stopping the Harm presentation, April 24, 2019
Questions? Feedback? Get in touch!
Jennifer (Evin) Jones, Executive Director, [email protected]