Advocates condemn BC’s decision to recriminalize substance use

Nurses say real solutions haven’t been provided to solve our public health emergency

A busy street in Downtown Vancouver
PHOTO: Aria Amirmoini / The Peak

By: Hannah Fraser, News Writer

Content warning: mentions of death and overdose, colonialism, and intergenerational trauma.

The BC government received approval to recriminalize illicit substance use in public spaces, one and a half years into a decriminalization pilot. Advocates from the Harm Reduction Nurses Association (HRNA) expressed discontent. The HRNA is a Canadian organization working to “advance harm reduction nursingand “the rights and dignity of people who use drugs.”

In January 2023, Health Canada granted BC a “three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize people who use drugs.” This meant of-age British Columbians found carrying small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use would no longer be arrested or charged. Instead of confiscating their drugs, they would be directed to health and social support. 

Now isn’t the first time the BC government has attempted to reverse this exemption. Less than a year into the exemption, they passed Bill 34, the Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act, which would undo this, and allow for confiscation of illegal substances and potential police arrest. At the time, the HRNA filed an injunction, which is a legal challenge, meant to prevent Bill 34 from coming into effect. 

The injunction was overturned in early 2024 after the HRNA proved the Act “would cause irreparable harm to people at risk of injury and death from fatal drug poisoning,” winning the case. 

The HRNA alleged the Act would subject more people to fatal overdose, create a barrier to healthcare outreach, and “drive racial discrimination, particularly against Indigenous people.” In 2021, the First Nations Health Authority explained Indigenous people are overly-represented in the toxic overdose crisis due to the intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system and other discriminatory policies

However, recriminalization has been enacted just a few months later, renewing these concerns. The BC Assembly of First Nations said, “We feel we need to move away from criminalizing behaviors that are the direct result of the harms of colonialism” and “the toxic drug crisis needs to be treated and addressed as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.”

“We need to move away from criminalizing behaviors that are the direct result of the harms of colonialism.” — BC Assembly of First Nations

“The BC government’s actions today will put people who use drugs and people who rely on public space at further risk of harm and death,” said Corey Ranger of the HRNA in a press release. “By imposing these restrictions on the decriminalization pilot without offering real solutions like expanding overdose prevention services and access to housing, the province has declared some lives unworthy of saving.”

A report from the BC government revealed that 93% of accidental deaths in the province’s houseless population were due to the toxic drug supply in 2021. 

Caitlin Shane of Pivot Legal Society and co-counsel for the HRNA said, “Bill 34 is punitive, political and lacks evidence.” President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, said the response to the overdose crisis requires “culturally appropriate treatment and recovery services, housing, and tools to address a range of intersecting trauma that for Indigenous peoples, is very much wrapped up in the destructive impacts of colonialism.”

The HRNA “reached out to the province with an offer to collaborate to address concerns without causing further harm, through a range of legal and policy changes.” They suggested implementing “rapid scaling-up of supervised consumption sites.”

“More than a century of prohibition has demonstrated that [police] enforcement has not decreased drug availability or use, is extremely expensive, and is clearly linked to an increased risk of overdose and cycles of homelessness,” said the HRNA. 

“When we see public drug use, it is because people do not have housing, services, or safe places to go — and because people want to stay alive, not die alone and out of sight.”

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