By: C Icart, Staff Writer
As of January 31, if you are 18 or older in BC, you “will now be able to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA within the province.” Instead of criminal charges and drug seizures, British Columbians found with this amount “will be offered information about health and social supports, including local treatment and recovery services, if requested.” This move was announced in May 2022 and the exemption from laws criminalizing drug possession will last until January 31, 2026.
This 3-year initiative is in response to the worsening overdose crisis. In April 2016, the province’s public health officer “declared a public health emergency under the Public Health Act; a first in BC and Canada.” In fact, “illicit drug toxicity is the leading cause of unnatural death in British Columbia and is second only to cancers in terms of years of life lost.” The overdose crisis is a public health emergency and should be treated as such. In BC, the toxic drug crisis “killed more than 10,000 people between January 2016 and October 2022.” The decriminalization of drugs is a critical step against the drug crisis because it will help reduce stigma and people in need will have access to life-saving services.
BC associates this decriminalization experiment with other harm-reduction initiatives like “safe consumption sites, safer supply, and naloxone.” Harm-reduction is a number of evidence-informed strategies and services that reduce “harms related to substance use.” This perspective acknowledges that complete abstinence is not necessarily a realistic goal for all drug users. Vancouver has been using harm-reduction strategies for decades — it opened the first legal Supervised Injection Site, InSite, in North America back in 2003.
The history of drug prohibition in Canada dates back centuries and has been used against marginalized and racialized populations. Specifically, prohibition is tied to colonization — ideas about drugs stem from western Christian religions and were pushed onto Indigenous nations. Prohibition came from “the idea that drugs are inherently bad and an immoral, corrupting force.”
The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition reported, “In the 1700 to 1800s, psychoactive substances were legal in Canada and many were taken for medical purposes.”
The “war on drugs,” a strategy that criminalizes drug users, has not been a successful way to prevent people from using. Instead, it contributes to the stigma that pushes people to use while alone and hidden, putting them at an increased risk of death.
However, advocates highlight that decriminalization does not change the toxicity of the supply. The drug supply in BC is increasingly toxic with high levels of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.
Kevin Yake, the vice-president of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) also adds that the increase in possession to 2.5 grams is not enough. The current threshold ignores the dynamics of drug use in BC, users who develop resistance to fentanyl require higher and higher doses well over 2.5 grams, this oversight is setting them up for failure. When the BC government applied for the Health Canada exemption, it had asked for 4.5 grams to follow the recommendations of VANDU and other advocacy groups. It was settled to 2.5 grams based on feedback from law enforcement. This also brings up concerns about how this new measure is going to be implemented and who is still at the most risk of being criminalized. This is especially true for “those who live in rural and remote communities where people often buy larger quantities of substances when they can access the illicit market.”
Fentanyl is not the only problem with the drug supply. Paxton Bach, an addiction medicine physician, highlights that uncertainty in drug composition plays a huge role in overdoses and overdose-related deaths. When purchasing and using illicit substances, generally, people are never sure of exactly what and how much they are using. Getting your drugs tested is a good way to deal with that reality. Get Your Drugs Tested is a free testing site on East Hastings that was founded in 2019 by Dana Larsen. It is the only place in Canada where you can get your drugs analyzed seven days a week in-person or by mail. Jerry Martin plans on opening a brick-and-mortar store in the Downtown Eastside selling previously illicit-to-use drugs like MDMA and cocaine. While this might sound controversial, his intention is to provide drugs that have been tested, thus providing a safe supply and potentially reducing overdoses.
However, decriminalization is different from legalization, and selling controlled substances is still illegal. Despite knowing that his store will likely get shut down, Martin still wants to go ahead with his plan and support efforts for a safer supply. It’s also worth noting that none of the above initiatives mention youth. But young people also use and consume substances. In 2022, 28 people under the age of 19 died in BC from toxic drugs. This may be an uncomfortable reality but young people also need harm-reduction spaces.
Strategies to address substance-related harm in our communities needs to include youth voices. In fact, it’s “a participatory right under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.” A group of researchers and activists developed a list of 10 calls to action to support the needs of young people who use drugs. Even in places like Vancouver, which is considered to be one of the world leaders in harm-reduction policies, there’s a critical gap between harm-reduction policies and young people who use drugs.
We could potentially start seeing decriminalization experiments like this across the country as “the federal government is currently reviewing an application by the City of Toronto.”
Internationally, many decriminalization advocates point to the example of Portugal. The country decriminalized possession of less than a 10-day supply of all drugs in 2001. Instead, people caught receive mandatory medical treatment. As a result, “drug-related deaths have remained below the EU average since 2001.” In the first decade following decriminalization, “new HIV infections, drug deaths, and the prison population all fell sharply.”
Decriminalization may sound like an intimidating step but it is an evidence-informed solution. Many who experience discomfort surrounding this idea will have to sit with the fact that our ideas surrounding substance use are tied to the era that we live in and the culture we have grown up in. There were times when being able to freely purchase alcohol or marijuana as an adult in Canada was also unthinkable. Educating ourselves about substance use and harm-reduction saves lives.
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