With B.C. on track to count 2022 as “possibly the worst year ever” for toxic-drug deaths, the start of a three-year trial that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of illicit drugs is just around the corner.
Health Canada last May announced that as of Jan. 31, 2023, British Columbians aged 18 and older will be allowed to carry up to 2.5 grams of street drugs – including cocaine and fentanyl – without fear of penalty or seizure, provided the drugs are for personal use.
Semiahmoo Peninsula locals who have seen the effects of such drugs firsthand have expressed mixed feelings on the exemption, describing it as everything from a step in a “compassionate direction,” to a move that’s unlikely to have any significant impact on the opioid-crisis death toll.
“It’s not that I’m not in favour,” Elenore Sturko, MLA for Surrey South and BC Liberal Shadow Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, said Monday (Jan. 9). “I think that with the record number of people that are losing their life to drug toxicity, we have to take a bold action.
“But where we stand as an Opposition, is it cannot be the only pillar of our system.
“We need to make sure that as we do this pilot of decriminalization, that we are also providing pathways to recovery for people, and sufficient and appropriate mental-health services so that people have a chance not just to be kept in illness, but to actually make a recovery.
“I just think that the pace at which we have sort of jettisoned towards decriminalization is far outpacing this government, how they’ve been providing for those services. Lots of announcements, but very little in terms of treatment for people.”
In announcing the move, government officials described the exemption as “a critical step” that will “reduce stigma and harm and provide another tool for British Columbia to end the overdose crisis,” by removing barriers that prevent people from accessing services and treatment.
The threshold amount is just over half of the 4.5-gram limit that had been requested by the province, and it comes with caveats, including that B.C. improve health and social systems to support the implementation.
George Passmore, director of personal and family counselling and support for Sources Community Resource Centres, described the “OK” given as a step in a “compassionate direction” towards viewing those who use such substances as people “of dignity, and worthy of community, not scorn and marginalization.”
“That can eventually result in less societal judgment, condemnation and social distancing, which can save pain and lives,” Passmore said.
With the exemption looming, Passmore said he is also hopeful the new rules will generate “more nuanced” conversations between parents and kids about substances; boost understanding and awareness of benefits versus harms, rather than simply stating “oh, it’s illegal,” or “it’s bad.”
“I’m glad that now… we can shift the conversations more towards harm reduction, understanding healthy relationships with drug use.”
However, the lower limit could also have an unintended consequence, he said – that of encouraging manufacturers to boost the potency of their drugs, “so people can get a greater effect with a lesser amount.”
According to statistics released by the BC Coroners Service last fall, illicit-drug toxicity deaths have doubled to 42 per 100,000 people since the opioid crisis was declared a public-health emergency in April 2016.
At least 10,000 people in B.C. have died due to toxic-drug overdoses since that declaration; 1,827 of them in the first 10 months of 2022. In October alone, at least 179 lives were lost to the poisoned supply.
Cole Izsak, a South Surrey resident and founder of Back on Track Recovery House, does not believe the numbers will improve with decriminalization. He pointed to abstinence-based recovery and treatment – which is the model his facility follows – as a more effective direction than the one chosen.
“To use our government’s resources to perpetuate addiction, it doesn’t feel right to me,” Izsak said.
“It doesn’t feel compassionate. It’s disguised as compassion.”
Izsak said the Portuguese model of decriminalization – in which drug use and possession of small quantities are dealt with through an administrative process – is one B.C. could learn from. It has been “very effective over the past decade in decriminalizing simple possession,” he said.
Since 2001, Portugal has been referring those caught using or possessing small amounts of illicit drugs to panels of legal, health and social-work experts tasked with helping them tackle issues related to their drug use.
The tactic has been credited with decreasing the number of users diagnosed with HIV, hepatitis B and C; increasing the number of users receiving voluntary drug treatment; and, reducing drug-user incarceration numbers. As well, the country’s overdose-death numbers are among the lowest in the European Union, according to a report in the Innovative Approaches to Drug Policy and Incarceration series.
At Izsak’s facility, the focus is “teaching (residents) how to live and showing them that clarity of mind and body is the right thing to do, even if getting high is fun sometimes.”
“In this day and age, (using drugs comes at) too great a cost,” he said. “It’s Russian roulette, because there’s fentanyl in so much.”
Sturko – who left the Surrey RCMP to pursue politics specifically because of the opioid crisis – noted decriminalization is not exactly new in B.C. There has been a form of it “for quite some time,” she said, explaining that B.C. Prosecution Service “very rarely” follows through on simple possession charges.
She plans to meet with community advocates and people with lived experience, as well as her colleagues in other ministries in an effort to have a meaningful impact on the opioid crisis.
Passmore, noting the opioid crisis is the number 1 cause of deaths in B.C., said an “upstream” approach is key, and the new rules do have the potential to effect some change.
“If anything, I hope that the decriminalization can really result in a shift in focus towards caring about people who are using substances in a variety of ways, and think about how do we connect with folks and support their well-being, without necessarily requiring them to stop using.”