Les Leyne: For BC politicians, a crash course in the harm of opioids

BC’s police chiefs agreed long ago that “the idea of ​​prosecuting people for simple possession was really a waste of time.”

As the federal government put the finishing touches on BC’s drug decriminalization bill, provincial politicians were taking a crash course in the opioid crisis that sparked the change.

A standing health committee, which has not met in several years, met in April to “examine the urgent and ongoing crisis of illicit drug overdose and toxicity.”

Since then, several meetings involving numerous experts have evolved into an advanced course on overdose deaths.

Although the decriminalization decision was pending at the time, many anticipated that Ottawa would approve BC’s request. “Implement decriminalization” was in the terms of reference weeks before federal Mental Health and Addiction Minister Carolyn Bennett announced Tuesday that possession of less than 2.5 grams will be decriminalized starting next year, for three years.

But witnesses told MLAs it won’t be as dramatic as it seems.

Police Services Director Wayne Rideout said BC’s police chiefs agreed long ago that “the idea of ​​prosecuting people for simple possession was really a waste of time.”

Charges are still being filed, but he said they often overlap with other criminal matters.

“The concept that it’s humanitarian not to accuse people and try to be sensitive to people’s health issues, they (police) are on board.”

Police will also stop seizing small amounts of drugs in simple possession cases next year. Rideout said police thinking has evolved and they recognize the harm that comes from seizing small amounts for personal use.

“The challenge they face is the concern that if they drop the drugs…and it’s a toxic supply, now they’ve dropped something that killed the individual in the person. They really struggle with that problem.”

Bulk trafficking will remain illegal, but Rideout has painted a picture of uselessness in that area of ​​application.

“No matter how many drugs you seize, how many you stop abroad or in this country, it is very difficult to stop enough to make a difference in the deaths on the streets and the tragedies that occur.

“There’s just so much of it out there.”

Before fentanyl production began in BC, it was simply mailed here and almost impossible to intercept.

“Organized crime is very good at adapting to police techniques and successes. You close a route, a technique, and they find another”.

Other witnesses made clear the losses that BC is suffering.

Dr. Sandra Allison, medical health officer for Island Health, said that despite continued commitment and investment, 326 people died in the health region last year, two and a half times more than the number attributed to COVID.

There were 127 overdose deaths last year in Victoria, which has been among the top three communities with the most deaths in the six years since the provincial health emergency was declared.

Over 9,000 people have died in BC from drug overdoses now. But the number of potential victims is greater than ever. The estimate is that about 100,000 people are at very high risk of dying from continued illicit drug use.

Dr. Patty Daly, Vancouver Coastal Medical Health Officer, said: “We actually have more people at risk of death from toxic drugs now than we did at the start of the crisis. … If these people have an addiction, it is a chronic relapsing condition,” she said. Decriminalization is important to address the stigma, but it will not change the toxicity.

Deputy provincial health director Dr Reka Gustafson said the number of people left at extreme risk shows the need for a broader response. “The magnitude of the problem means that we must think about and implement interventions that are not gradual. We are not in a situation where incremental improvements address the magnitude of the problem.”

Deputy Mental Health and Addiction Minister Christine Massey described the statistical survey of victims. People in extreme poverty are 33 times more likely to die from an overdose. 44% of fatalities had received social assistance in the month prior to their death. Others said overdoses spike the day welfare checks are issued.

The testimony painted a mostly grim picture of futility, despite several innovations and large investments.

With that track record, the committee has a wide open field when it comes to recommending new approaches.

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