BC’s decision to recriminalize drugs makes a bad problem worse

Decriminalization saves lives

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Skyscrapers on a Downtown Vancouver street as seen from below.
PHOTO: Amirul Anirban / The Peak

By: Sofia Chassomeris, SFU Student

Content warning: mentions of overdose and death.

Since declaring the crisis eight years ago, BC has lost over 14,000 people to overdose, with Indigenous people making up nearly “six times the rate of other BC residents.” According to CBC, “toxic drugs are the leading cause of death for people aged 10–59” in the province. Complete prohibition of these drugs, while it may seem like an attractive idea to elected officials, does not work. Two years ago, BC was granted a historical exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize “small-scale possession of illicit drugs” for a three-year pilot project. This May, BC recriminalized these substances, which is a major step backwards.

Drug decriminalization is an important harm reduction policy. It can help prevent overdose by understanding that people who use drugs can face difficulty receiving medical or social care if the threat of criminal prosecution continues to loom over them. Decriminalization paves the way for constructive and rehabilitative solutions for those who use drugs, while having a criminal record poses significant barriers to social reintegration. Harm reduction ideologies recognize that addiction is not a moral failing but a result of larger social and economic structures. In practice, harm reduction shifts the focus from punishment and abstinence to compassion, support, and safe pharmaceutical alternatives. Most importantly, harm reduction practices treat people who use drugs as people, first and foremost. This is extremely relevant given the stigma around people who use drugs and the social connotations of being criminalized.

Harm reduction practices treat people who use drugs as people, first and foremost.

Two years after decriminalization, BC recriminalized the use of drugs in public spaces. A CBC article notes that while possession of 2.5 grams or less and use in private residences is still decriminalized, use in public spaces is what the amendment seeks to prevent. Although the government may argue this is the most practical solution, I wholly disagree. I do not trust the VPD or RCMP, organizations with a gruesome history of violence toward marginalized members of the community, to make unbiased and just decisions regarding who is a danger to public safety. This amendment also seems entirely targeted. We know that the opioid crisis disproportionately affects people who are unhoused or experiencing unstable housing; making their legal safety contingent on using drugs in a private residence is just diabolical. 

The Select Standing Committee on Health’s report from the Legislative Assembly of BC recommends that drug trafficking enforcement should be part of a broader response. Rather than prioritizing law enforcement, they request that “overdose and mental health calls be redirected to more specialized responders where possible,” and recognize a larger continuum of care is necessary to provide significant solutions. Strictly medical views of substance use are deceptive in that they avoid discussions about the things that harm drug users the most, such as drug laws and excessive use of police force to impose them. In reality, the actual harm experienced by people who use drugs is a by-product of social, economic, and racial inequality, on top of the physiological and mental effects of addiction. Drug criminalization disproportionately impacts Indigenous people due to factors like racial profiling and overpolicing, compounded with systemic healthcare and social barriers. They’re also overrepresented in overdose statistics, making up 10% of mortalities. This is why harm reduction policies alone cannot alleviate what is ultimately a consequence of colonialism — but that doesn’t make them meritless. 

Giving the police even more authority to assess who is a danger to their surroundings will do further irreparable damage to the lives of people who use drugs. Where instead they could be met with empathy and understanding, they are met with punitive force and aggression. This is a critical mistake from the provincial government, especially when the opioid crisis is ravaging our most vulnerable communities. This amendment will only put more people in danger. With BC’s next provincial election only four months away, I urge students who are eligible to register to vote and become involved in community and regional politics — it will not fix the problem, but it may bring us closer to creating meaningful solutions.

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