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British Columbia’s Devastating Opioid Crisis Is Leading To Calls For Decriminalization | Explained

As British Columbia faces its second consecutive month of record breaking opioid deaths, Premier John Horgan has penned a letter explicitly asking the federal government to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs for personal use.

The Big Picture: Since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, overdoses have skyrocketed due to a much more toxic drug supply, and more users being forced to use alone. The Premier’s call for urgent action and decriminalization amplifies similar requests from The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs and B.C.’s top health officials.

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Record Breaking Deaths: In June, British Columbia suffered 175 deaths from opioid overdoses, over 5 per day. This beat the previous monthly record of 171 set in May 2020 which itself represented a 93% spike in deaths over May 2019.

  • The onset of COVID-19 has exacerbated a problem which had previously been coming under control with a 36% year-over-year decrease in overdose deaths before the start of the pandemic.

What are the reasons: Increased toxicity paired with solitary drug usage have been identified as key reasons for the surge in deaths.

  • The B.C. Coroners Service detected extreme fentanyl levels in autopsies over the past couple of months as drug dealers begin cutting their drugs more as a cost saving measure.
  • Police are also finding deadly fentanyl in stimulant drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, not just in heroin.
  • Furthermore, COVID-19 social distancing regulations have forced many local overdose prevention sites like The Harbour, Victoria’s largest safe consumption space, to reduce their capacity or close entirely.

Who is being impacted:

  • As a result of decreased safe spaces for consumption, an overwhelming number of the recent deadly overdoses have taken place within private residences with only a small number occurring on the streets.
  • 80% of those who have died are men who have been seen as more likely to develop pain killer addiction and more willing to use alone.
  • Meanwhile, B.C.’s First Nations Health Authority stated that deaths have surged disproportionately among First Nations people during the pandemic. Loses have spiked by 93% between January & May compared to 2019.

What needs to be done: Public Health Officials, local Police and government are all asking for more to be done to combat this rise in opioid deaths.

  • Safe supply is one option which has been piloted in B.C. where users are provided with prescription pain medication.
  • Prevention sites where users can have their drugs tested and consume in a safe environment need to be invested in.
  • Decriminalized possession for personal use of illicit drugs as a logical next step to reduce opioid deaths.

Why Decriminalization: In advocating for decriminalization on behalf of Canadian the Association of Chiefs of Police, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer recently acknowledged that arresting people for drug possession isn’t effective in saving lives during this opioid epidemic.

  • This validates long time calls from public health officials such as Bonnie Henry who said:

“We need to put as much time and effort and kindness and compassion into caring for people who use drugs as we have been successful in doing in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.”

  • In his letter to the federal government calling for a national plan for policy change around controlled substance use, B.C. Premier John Horgan stated that decriminalization would reduce stigma and help users to get the help they need.

Criminal prohibitions are ineffective in deterring drug use, and criminalization of drug possession directly leads to both individuals and systemic stigma and discrimination that prevent people from seeking services,” Horgan said.

The Federal Angle: While more action is needed, numerous government officials have recognized the severity of the opioid crisis and have pledged action.

  • In a joint statement, Canada’s attorney general and federal health minister welcomed the call from Canadian police chiefs to decriminalize drugs for simple possession.
  • Liberal MP for Delta Carla Qualtrough said the government is working to reduce red tape of access to safe supply.
  • In the 2019 election, the Trudeau Liberals ruled out decriminalization, a move which is supported by the NDP and Greens, but rejected by conservatives.

The Bottom Line: While BC has been praised for flattening its COVID-19 curve, it has not met the challenge of tackling this latest surge in opioid deaths. Yet, in the same way the pandemic has required a national response, so will tackling this severe public health crisis which has lead to over 4500 deaths in BC since it was declared in 2016.

  • Decriminalization of simple possession is widely advocated for by public health officials and police chiefs alike and could provide a necessary step towards saving lives.