Home » B.C. takes steps toward drug decriminalization

Posted: April 14, 2021

B.C. takes steps toward drug decriminalization

As British Columbia marks five years since declaring the overdose crisis a public health emergency, its unprecedented toll continues to affect people in every part of the province.

Taking action that is aligned with calls from police chiefs and public health officials, the province is moving forward with measures to combat stigma and turn the tide on this crisis.

To address stigma, B.C. will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in the province to remove the shame that often prevents people from reaching out for life-saving help.

“Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone,” said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Through province-wide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment.”

Officials with the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and Health Canada have been working on an agreement that outlines how the Province of B.C. will work with Health Canada to apply for a province-wide exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which governs simple drug possession.

The overdose crisis has impacted every community in B.C., and a province-wide exemption must consider the circumstances unique to urban, rural and remote communities. Key issues for consideration are defining simple possession, determining allowable drug amounts and ensuring the readiness of law enforcement, health and social services to support decriminalization, stated an April 14 Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions press release.

Consultation with Indigenous partners, peers, law enforcement, municipalities and public health officials is being planned.

Decriminalization is one additional tool in B.C.’s accelerated overdose response plan that also includes harm reduction, prevention, treatment and recovery, while building a system of mental health and substance use care.

As a result, the province is also boosting funds to secure recently expanded overdose prevention services for people at high risk of overdose province-wide.

A new $45-million investment over the next three years will extend and enhance the funding announced in August 2020 to support those services to save more lives, the ministry stated.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having devastating effects on people who use drugs – illicit substances are more toxic and people are struggling with increased isolation,” Malcolmson said. “Today, our government is committing to sustain and enhance services in every health authority to prevent overdose deaths and connect people to supports. There’s more to come as we continue building the comprehensive system of mental health and addictions care that British Columbians deserve.”

This investment will support people who use drugs by enabling health authorities to continue scaling up their regional overdose responses through new and expanded overdose prevention services, including inhalation sites to meet the growing need for this mode of consumption. Health authorities are hiring new registered nurses who can prescribe addictions treatment medications, in addition to social workers and peer support workers for new and existing interdisciplinary outreach teams.

There is much more to do to stem the tide of the overdose crisis; however, many people are getting the help they need now. Last year, nearly 3,000 overdoses were survived at overdose prevention services, with zero deaths recorded, the ministry said.

Since 2018, more than 6,000 deaths have been averted because of the life-saving interventions government has implemented, such as expanded access to overdose prevention services including wide availability to naloxone.

This news comes today as flags are flying at half-mast around the province in recognition of the five-year anniversary of B.C.’s public health emergency for substance-related harms.

During that time, the BC Coroners Service reports illicit drugs have claimed the lives of at least 7,072 British Columbians.

Currently, more than 23,000 people are receiving some form of opioid agonist treatment in B.C. – more than at any other time.

To date, 82 registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses have enrolled to complete their training to prescribe medications for opioid use disorder.

According to the BC Coroners Service, using drugs by inhalation has become the most common mode of consumption implicated in illicit drug toxicity deaths in B.C.

Lead image: Drugs confiscated by the RCMP. RCMP file photo


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