The province of BC is committed to a human rights-based approach to harm reduction (see Overdose Emergency Response Centre Terms of Reference), and this toolkit focuses on human rights issues associated with discrimination against people use drugs. It draws information collected from people who use drugs compiled and reported in Project Inclusion report, national and international sources.
A human rights approach centres drug use as a health issue. Every person has the inherent right to equality, dignity, and security of their person. Every person has a right to “the highest attainable standard of health” available in their country. Human rights aren’t negotiable. They are the most fundamental rights we have.
Just like it is overtly discriminatory against a person with substance use disorder by using stigmatizing language or firing them from their job without accommodating their disability, it is also discriminatory to do something that inadvertently disadvantages people who are (or who are perceived to be) in active addiction. In the midst of the reality of a toxic drug supply, these actions can be deadly.
It is not uncommon for decision-makers who set policy or pass bylaws for very good reasons to also and inadvertently create discriminatory disadvantage for PWUD. It also happens that good people who work as health or social service providers, bylaw officers, or police officers inadvertently participate in discrimination against PWUD by enforcing rules or advancing viewpoints that disadvantage PWUD.
Human rights education isn’t about pointing the finger; it’s about supporting decision-makers and front-line workers in identifying and removing those inadvertent barriers that disadvantage (and in the current context endanger) PWUD.
Educating your community begins with identifying where human rights may be at risk and inviting people into conversation. These might not be easy conversations to have. People might not see the problems or have an understanding where human rights aren’t being upheld. Nevertheless, addressing stigma and discrimination is a key element of the Province’s response to the overdose crisis and these conversations are an essential element of making life safer for British Columbians.
Working with City Council on stigma and bylaws
Bylaws are rules developed by municipalities and enforced by police officers (some cities have bylaw officers as well). Bylaws are sometimes enforced in a way that directly or indirectly discriminate against people who use drugs.
Working with Council to educate them about issues and bring about change can be approached in several ways, including a request to speak at a City Council meeting, or requesting a meeting with the Mayor or similar authority.
As a general approach to analyzing bylaws with a human rights lens, look for how they are written to:
- Limit people’s movements within public space or facilities, potentially cutting off access to services
- Prohibit or monitor the possession of harm reduction supplies (called “drug paraphernalia” in bylaws). Harm reduction is a provincially mandated public health effort to address overdose events
- Allow for the seizure of personal belongings, which may include life-saving medications
- Refer to people in stigmatizing language that justifies inequitable treatment
Working with Council to educate them about how human rights principles apply to bylaw enforcement
Ask: Does this bylaw (or the way it is being enforced) adversely impact people who are (or are perceived to be) in addiction?
If the answer is “Yes” it may be discriminatory and a violation of human rights law.
Remember: Whether or not you intend to discriminate is not relevant to a finding that you did discriminate. The law looks at impact, not intent.
The next step: Is not to punish but to remedy. What is a better way this bylaw could be written/enforced that would maintain its good purpose without the unintended consequence of discrimination?
Common types of bylaws that often affect people who use drugs relate to public spaces, the right to carry harm reduction supplies, and seizure of belongings (including prescribed medications). These may at times violate human rights. To learn more, refer to Know Your Rights Handbook, a Guide for People who Rely on Public Space
How to request to speak at a City Council meeting: Request for delegation
How to write a formal request for a meeting: Sample letter to City Council
Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA), gives you access to records and information created and compiled by the public bodies of BC.
How to bring local concerns of stigma to the police
There are different ways that communities enforce laws and bylaws. The most obvious one is the local police force, but there are other groups as well. Your community might want to share human rights education with all groups associated with police work.
Project Inclusion reported common experiences of PWUD where police:
- disrupt harm reduction activities
- take away harm reduction supplies
- bar people from certain areas, meaning they can’t get health services, including services providing harm reduction
- take away belongings, including medications
Police must abide by the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act , which provides some legal protection for anyone at an overdose event, including the person experiencing an overdose. Your local force may need education on this Act.
Find out what the positions or policies of the police force in your community on the issues below so you can help them develop rights-based change as needed:
- Access to harm reduction services (often dictated under conditions of bail or release)
- Attendance at overdoses
- Confiscating harm reduction supplies
- Discretionary decisions on laying charges against people who have an amount of drugs in their possession that would indicate it’s for personal use
BC’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, in her report Stopping the Harm cited research that found “a police initiative that focused on increased enforcement. This research found that an intensified police presence compromised safer injection practices, including people who inject drugs being more reluctant to carry sterile syringes due to police confiscating syringes; rushing to inject drugs (a behaviour that can increase the risk for overdose); using drugs in riskier situations and places; and discarding used syringes.” (Stopping the Harm, p. 19)
Connecting with police and related enforcement
The RCMP delivers law enforcement services in the majority of BC municipalities. If the RCMP is the active police force in your area, you can request a meeting with the senior officer of the detachment.
If your municipality has its own police force (there are 12 in BC), in addition to meeting with the Police Chief or senior officer, consider presenting at Municipal Community Police Boards, which determine the priorities, goals and objectives of the police department. You can find information about Municipal Police Board members and meetings on the websites of municipality police forces, which can be found on the list of BC Police Forces.
You may also want to educate staff and volunteers at Community Police Offices, which work at a neighbourhood level and often deal with crime prevention.
How to Raise Concerns About Hospitals and Healthcare Services
Everyone has the right to a good experience in the healthcare system, yet we know incidents happen. Ask people with lived experiences to share their experiences. People who took part in Project Inclusion research reported some difficulties getting services at hospitals (Pp 115-116) , which included:
- Patient files being red flagged as someone who uses drugs
- Inadequate pain management in hospitals (especially for Indigenous people)
- Dope sickness in hospital
- Assumption that Indigenous people are drunk when they present with health issues
Each health authority has a Patient Care Quality Office to handle concerns about patient experiences in hospital or community. The recommendation from Health Authorities is that people resolve issues at the time they are experienced. Asking people who are sick or injured to deal with conflict when they are sick or injured isn’t realistic, especially if they are experiencing stigma as well.
To address concerns about patterns of experiences identified by peers in your healthcare community, you could call the Patient Services Manager or Care Management Lead in the hospital department where there are concerns. In a community setting, you could meet with clinic management and staff. They may refer you to the Patient Care Quality office about how best to proceed.
The BC Centre for Disease Control Harm Reduction Services offers resources for healthcare professionals, and you may find these useful. Information includes guidelines on needle distribution and safe needle disposal, opioid overdose and prevention, best practices for overdose prevention sites (including tools on safer washroom policies and protocols) . Find these at:
Health Professionals page, Toward the Heart
Frequently asked questions about the patient health complaint process
Complaints about Police Incidents
If someone experiences what they feel is unacceptable police behaviour, complaints can be made against the actions of on-duty police officers. People who wish to make a complaint must be directly involved in the incident; a witness to the incident; or a person authorized to act on behalf of the person directly involved in the incident.
Complaints about RCMP officers are reviewed by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, which is independent of the RCMP itself. Complaints can be made online, or by downloading and completing a form. Learn more about the complaint process.
Municipal Police Forces
The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) is responsible for dealing with complaints that involve municipal police departments in BC. The OPCC makes sure that the process is fair and impartial for both the people making the complaint and the police officer(s) involved. Complaints can be made at a municipal police department, online, or by phone (1-877-999-8707 or (250) 356-7458). The OPCC also provides referrals to support organizations for those going through the complaint process. Learn more about the complaint process.
Complaints about a first responder or paramedic
Complaints about first responders or paramedics go to the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) Patient Care Quality Office (PHSA PCQO). Complaints can be made online, or by phone: 1-888-875-3256 (toll free). Learn more about what information is required to make a complaint.
See further resources in section How to Raise Concerns About Hospitals and Healthcare Services above.
How to File a Complaint to the Human Rights Commission
Substance use disorder (addiction) is a disability under the BC Human Rights Code. (Learn more about Drug Use as a Health and Rights Issue). For those who may be considering a human rights complaint, learn more about the process.
Guide to BC Human Rights Code and Tribunal– this contains overview information about the BC Human Rights Code, the Tribunal, the complaint process and review. This guide and the information below states clearly that it is general, not legal advice, and questions should be directed to a lawyer.
How to File a Complaint
Frequently Asked Questions
BC Human Rights Clinic – provides free representation to complainants who have cases before the BC Human Rights Tribunal on a province-wide basis. If accepted, you will be assigned an Advocate to assist people through the early stages of a complaint.
Additional Tools for Individuals Dealing with Discrimination
Pivot Legal Society has developed useful cards that can be folded and carried in a pocket. These pocket cards can be used if people find themselves in specific situations. The Know Your Rights Handbook (2019) has additional information.
Know Your Rights Pocket Cards:
Download Know Your Rights When Talking to Police
Download The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act: What You Need to Know
Download Know Your Rights with Private Security
Download Methadone Rights
Download Vancouver Police and Sex Workers: Know Your Rights
Foundation Tools: Human Rights and Health Equity | Drug Use as a Health and Rights Issue | Surveying Conditions in BC
Tools for Action: How to Engage People with Lived Experience | Beyond Stigma-Reduction
Templates for Change | Select Handouts at a Glance
For general information on drug use and health, see our Substance Use and Harm Reduction page.
Please note that the information in this toolkit is for general information only and should not be taken or relied upon as legal advice. If you have questions about a specific case, consult a lawyer.