In an effort to save lives, B.C. has applied for an exemption from Health Canada to remove criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of narcotics for personal use.
More than 1,204 people died from the province's toxic drug supply from January to July of this year, according to the latest data from the BC Coroners Service.
The exemption would be under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson announced Monday, and would apply to people 19 and older.
“It is not a criminal issue,” Malcolmson said. “Shame and fear keep people from accessing treatment and services.”
In July alone, 184 people died, pushing the average daily overdose death rate to six.
The new numbers make July the second-deadliest month on record in B.C. for drug toxicity, only two fewer than the 186 deaths recorded in June 2020.
In the first seven months of 2021, 1,204 suspected drug toxicity deaths have been recorded, the highest number experienced in B.C. from January through July in any calendar year. That’s 26% more than the previous high of 954 deaths recorded between January and July 2017.
July is the 17th consecutive month in which more than 100 British Columbians have died from toxic drugs.
Chief coroner Lisa LaPointe called the numbers “a stark reminder of the tragic and unrelenting trajectory of this public health emergency.”
The significant drivers of the death toll remain fentanyl and its analogues, which were detected in 86% of all illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020 and 2021 to date.
Since the public health emergency was declared, the death rate due to toxic drugs in B.C. has almost doubled from 20.4 per 100,000 in 2016 to 39.7 per 100,000 in 2021.
“Clearly, the scale of this public health emergency requires an urgent, coordinated and multifaceted health-system response,” Lapointe said. ͞”Those at risk of dying come from all walks of life and live in every part of our province. If we truly want to save lives, an accessible range of solutions that reflects the breadth and scope of this crisis is urgently needed.”
LaPointe said solutions could include drug-checking services, safe consumption sites, meaningful access to life-saving safe supply and the implementation of evidence-based standards of practice for the treatment of problematic substance use.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she was “incredibly pleased” about the exemption request.
“It has never been more urgent than now,” Henry said. “The drug toxicity crisis is not a criminal issue. It is not a moral issue. It is a public health issue.”
She added criminal charges for possession just creates a revolving door in the courts for people in need of help, creating demands they cannot meet.
LaPointe also agreed with the move.
“Decades of criminalization has not worked,” the coroner said. “We need to move from a criminalization model to a health model.”
“The goal of decriminalization is to reduce needless suffering and death,” LaPointe continued. “It is a rational, compassionate response to a health crisis.”
Former chief coroner and former Vancouver mayor Sen. Larry Campbell is also on board.
“This is about keeping people alive. That’s it. That’s the bottom line,” Campbell said, encouraging other provinces to join the request.
He acknowledged there would be those opposed to the move but added, “It drives me crazy that people cannot get it through their heads that this is a health issue.”
He said he was confident the exemption request would be approved.
“This is life and death,” he said. “There is nothing more important.”
The exemption amount would be for 4.5 grams of a drug, an amount Henry called a middle ground, although she acknowledged some might disagree.
“This is a start,” she said.
The BC Association of Chiefs of Police (BCACP) said it supports the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. But the organization is not in favour of the 4.5-gram rule.
The BCACP said the the threshold could lead to:
- Predatory drug traffickers exploiting the threshold, creating public safety concerns;
- An increase in public consumption;
- Expanded online illicit sales;
- Motor vehicle-related offences;
- Public consumption (e.g. schools, playgrounds);
- Impacts to children and youth, and;
- Absence of adequate treatment and health support options.
However, civil society groups involved in addiction crisis issues said the changes won’t adequately protect those who use drugs.
The groups said substances included in the application are those most commonly involved in deaths: opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, powder cocaine and crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.
“Other substances, such as MDMA and psilocybin are currently still criminalized, despite frequently being used alongside other substances by people who use drugs,” the groups said in a joint statement.
Further, the groups said the 4.5 grams would cover all drugs a person would be carrying which could negatively impact Indigenous people, those in rural communities, multiple-substance users, those who purchase for others or who rely on others to purchase for them — disproportionately women and people with disabilities, homeless people who must carry all belongings with them and those who use large quantities of substances
“Decriminalization is about cops getting out of the lives of drug users. Period,” said activist Garth Mullins. “When governments change the fine print and insist on lower possession thresholds, half of us get left behind. In B.C., that means half of the 100,000 with ‘opioid use disorder’ will still be criminalized, harassed, cuffed and jailed. Our drugs — and our liberty — will still be seized.”
BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres policy director Geoff Rankin said he was concerned about decriminalization and the inclusion of reconciliation and decolonization in the process.
“Reconciliation in B.C. and Canada is needed, but it cannot be a one-sided approach. We must have truth before reconciliation, and the truth of the matter is, the B.C. model for decriminalization does not meet the needs or truths of Indigenous drug users.”
He said the engagement process was “a highly colonial process devoid of any decolonial processes or taking into consideration that the data shows that Indigenous drug users continue to make up a large part of those criminalized and harmed by the continued drug war.”
“The B.C. model needs to listen to drug users and meet them where they are at, take reconciliation seriously by putting actionable processes in place to ensure decolonization of this process is real and not just another ill-conceived plan that will need to be redone when drug users and those supporting them have spoken clearly already on what is needed.”
Quick facts about B.C.'s overdose crisis
• 72% of those who have died as a result of suspected drug toxicity in 2021 were between 30 and 59, and 79% were male;
• So far this year, 84% of illicit drug toxicity deaths have occurred inside (55% in private residences and 29% in other residences, including social and supportive housing, SROs, shelters, hotels and other indoor locations) while 15% occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets, parks, etc;
• The health authorities with the highest rates of death per 100,000 population are Vancouver Coastal (47.2) and Northern Health (45.6) and;
• Deaths due to drug toxicity remain the leading cause of unnatural death in B.C.