B.C. is taking steps to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs, but government isn’t going far enough to save those dying in the epidemic of opioid overdoses, according to Maple Ridge advocates.
On Tuesday, the province announced a three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, to remove criminal charges for people who possess illicit drugs for personal use. Charges will not be laid in B.C. against people 18 or older possessing up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine or ecstasy.
The government called it a critical step toward reducing the shame and fear associated with substance use. The exemption will be in effect from Jan. 31, 2023.
“It’s probably the easiest step to take, but if it’s the start of change, that’s good,” said Debbie Picco, a Maple Ridge woman who is a member of the Mom’s Stop the Harm group. “It’s the start of a start.
“It’s a small thing. Safe supply is a huge thing,” she added.
She lost her son Tommy Picco to a drug overdose, and said such government action has been slow in coming, since B.C. declared opioid overdose deaths a public health emergency six years ago in April of 2016. Debbie wondered why government chose to wait until the end of the year to implement this new initiative, with the rate of overdoses.
“It’s a terrible time to wait, with all of the time they’ve had to address this,” she said.
Mo Korchinski, president of Alouette Addictions, questioned the impact the exemption will have. She said police are generally not actively trying to arrest people with small amounts of narcotics. Rather, drug users who get charged with simple possession are typically apprehended in the commission of some other offence, and found to have illicit drugs on them.
She said government could make a greater difference by providing more detox and treatment facilities across the province, so people can get help beating their addiction.
“Is this (exemption) going to make a difference in the overdose numbers? I don’t think so,” she predicted.
Korchinski spoke against an earlier proposal to decriminalize amounts as large as 4.5 grams, saying that much fentanyl would be too much to be considered for personal use. She said the same problems still exist at 2.5 grams, which is a lot of fentanyl, but could be considered for personal use with other drugs.
“It’s a start. I’m glad to see they’re focusing on this issue,” said Korchinski. “Do I think it’s enough? No.”
She and Doug Sabourin, executive director of Alouette Addictions Services in Maple Ridge, continued called for a safe supply as the best way to address the issue of increasing drug toxicity.
The province will work with the federal government, health authorities, police, people with lived and living experience, Indigenous partners and community organizations to implement the exemption and evaluate outcomes.
“The shocking number of lives lost to the overdose crisis requires bold actions and significant policy change. I have thoroughly reviewed and carefully considered both the public health and public safety impacts of this request,” said Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Eliminating criminal penalties for those carrying small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will reduce stigma and harm and provide another tool for British Columbia to end the overdose crisis.”
This exemption is not legalization. These substances remain illegal, but adults who have 2.5 grams or less of the certain illicit substances for personal use will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized. Instead, police will offer information on available health and social supports and will help with referrals when requested.
“Substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” said Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “By decriminalizing people who use drugs, we will break down the stigma that stops people from accessing life-saving support and services.”
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