Life saver or failure? B.C.’s decriminalization of drugs 1 year later

A year ago, the B.C. government pledged decriminalization would help save lives. With toxic drug deaths at record levels for 2023, opponents are now saying the experiment should be over.

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On Jan. 30, 2023, the day before B.C. became the first Canadian province to decriminalize possession of hard drugs, the B.C. government heralded the move as a “bold action to save lives.”

“Every day, we are losing lives to overdoses from the increasingly toxic illegal drug supply. We are committed to stopping this tragic epidemic with bold action and significant policy change,” said federal Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Carolyn Bennett, who appeared alongside her B.C. counterpart Jennifer Whiteside at a press conference in Vancouver.

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B.C.’s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe tried to temper expectations, stressing that decriminalization alone would not reduce the death toll.

Observers say that by setting such lofty and unrealistic goals, B.C.’s decriminalization experiment was set up to fail.

Nicole Luongo, systems change coordinator with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said the B.C. government continues to “propagate a narrative to the public that decrim is supposed to reduce drug fatalities.”

“And so unfortunately … what has happened in B.C. is the province kind of obfuscated the purpose of decrim from the jump and directly stated that it would reduce drug poisoning deaths,” Luongo said. “But without regulating the drug supply and introducing pathways to acquire a safe supply, those numbers won’t change.”

One year into the three-year pilot project to decriminalize possession of 2.5 grams or less of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, B.C.’s toxic drug deaths have reached record levels with an average of seven people a day dying in 2023.

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‘The public was really kind of set up to have disproportionate expectations of what decrim could achieve,’ says Nicole Luongo, systems change coordinator with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

It’s prompted B.C. United and B.C. Conservative MLAs to call for decriminalization to be scrapped, citing waning public support, frustration with rampant drug use in parks and public spaces, and an about-face from Oregon three years into their trial. Proponents of decriminalization, however, say it can only be successful when coupled with a drastically expanded program to provide opioid alternatives to poisoned street drugs.

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Premier David Eby has tried to reach a sort of middle ground, with a law passed in October that bans drug use in most public spaces, akin to laws that prohibit smoking or drinking in public.

It gives police the power to once again seize drugs if a person does not comply with orders to stop using drugs in banned spaces. Harm reduction advocates say the law significantly waters down B.C.’s decriminalization policy and will push people into back alleys, where they are most likely to fatally overdose.

Following a legal challenge by the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, that law was swiftly blocked by the courts before it came into effect. The B.C. government is appealing that ruling.

Eby said last week he’s not backing down from decriminalization nor from the law to regulate where drugs are used.

He said he firmly believes that “British Columbians support the idea that the criminal law is not the right way to deal with addiction.” In order to continue with decriminalization policy, he said, “we also need to make sure that we’re reassuring British Columbians that they don’t have to give up their parks, they don’t have to give up their bus stops.”

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Former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart was an early proponent of decriminalization in B.C.’s largest city, even as former Premier John Horgan and many B.C. mayors were skeptical about a provincewide approach.

Stewart recalls talking to other big city mayors about Vancouver’s proposal for decriminalization “and there’d be crickets in the room.”

“Everybody there was scared to deal with this issue, even though they knew it was occupying so much of their time, there was so much pain in their cities,” said Stewart, who served one term and was defeated by Mayor Ken Sim in 2022.

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Former City of Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart has written a book titled, Decrim: How we decriminalized drugs in British Columbia. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

But as B.C.’s fentanyl crisis rapidly spread beyond the epicentre of Vancouver, police associations across B.C. endorsed the principle that drug use should be treated as a health issue as opposed to a criminal justice one, said Stewart, who is now the director of the Centre for Public Policy Research at Simon Fraser University.

One year into B.C.’s decriminalization trial, Stewart, who wrote a book called Decrim: How we decriminalized drugs in British Columbia, is frustrated by the rhetoric from conservative politicians who deem decriminalization a failure.

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“In the worst case scenario, they’re saying it’s caused all these deaths, which is wrong,” he said.

Decriminalization, he said, was never meant to be a “cure all” to the toxic drug crisis.

“The arrests and charges have diminished to nothing. That’s really good, because that means that, you know, drug users can go get the drugs checked. Drug users can talk about their drug use and seek help. That’s really what decrim was about. It’s not increasing the level of drug use. It’s increasing the level of safe drug use.”

“Nobody really thought (decriminalization) would save a lot of lives,” Stewart said.

This statement baffled B.C. United MLA Elenore Sturko, who is devastated by data released last week that revealed 2,511 people lost their lives to toxic drugs in 2023, the highest death toll since the public health emergency was declared in 2016. It was a five per cent increase from the 2,272 who died of drug toxicity in 2022.

“We entered into decriminalization because of the overdose public health emergency,” said Sturko, the Opposition party’s critic for mental health and addiction. “And they wanted to reduce stigma in order to help people get into recovery and treatment and to save lives.”

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In a Jan. 30 letter, Sturko asked federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Ya’ara Saks and Premier David Eby to immediately cancel the three-year decriminalization pilot project.

“This tragic year over year increase signals that decriminalization is having no impact on saving lives,” Sturko wrote.

For Sturko, it’s telling that three years into Oregon’s experience with decriminalization, state lawmakers are looking to recriminalize drugs following widespread public backlash to open drug use, crime and social disorder.

The sweeping bill would allow police to seize drugs and charge the person with a low-level misdemeanour, a charge that would be thrown out if the person shows up to a meeting for addiction assessment or intervention.

“We’ve had three years of this law that has not delivered on the promise that voters thought they were getting,” Washington County district attorney Kevin Barton told CBS News.

Overdose deaths in Oregon have continued to rise since 2020. However, a recent report led by NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine found no link between decriminalization policy and overdose deaths.

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Sturko, though, believes Oregon is proving to be the “canary in the coal mine.”

“Do we wait for it here to deteriorate to such a point where we’re in an even worse crisis?” she asked. “Or do we take action now to make sure that we don’t do further harm?”

Tera Hurst, executive director of Oregon Health Justice Recovery, a group that has fought to preserve decrim, said rather than recriminalizing possession, state lawmakers should focus on prohibiting public drug use.

“Is there a need to have a real conversation with the community about what is OK in our public spaces and what isn’t?” Hurst asked. “Yeah, I think that’s fair.”

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Tera Hurst is the executive director of Oregon Health Justice Recovery, which has fought to preservedecriminalization in the state. Photo by Oregon Health Justice Recovery

But given the three-fold increase in people accessing community supports such as housing services, harm reduction and social services, “the data doesn’t support going back on decrim,” Hurst said. “This is political.”

Luongo has tried to cut through the political jockeying by focusing on the successes of decriminalization, which is reducing people’s interaction with the criminal justice system and reducing the stigma of drug use so people are more likely to reach out for help.

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B.C.’s biggest mistake over the last year, she said, was failing to simultaneously expand the province’s program to provide safer alternatives to toxic street drugs, which has been proven to reduce overdose deaths.

“So I think the public was really kind of set up to have disproportionate expectations of what decrim could achieve.”

Speaking after the grim 2023 overdose numbers were released last week, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside stressed the province is committed to reducing the death toll of the opioid crisis. Decriminalization, she said, is one part of a multi-pronged approach to improving mental health and addiction services “across the whole spectrum of need from early intervention, prevention to housing, harm reduction to treatment and recovery.”

Since B.C. was first out of the gate in testing decriminalization in Canada, Luongo said other jurisdictions are watching us closely.

The City of Toronto in 2022 asked for Health Canada to greenlight decriminalization in that city but the application has not yet been approved.

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“And the fact that this decrim pilot was so Limited to begin with kind of sets a really poor precedent,” she said.

Green party MLA Adam Olsen said decriminalization has not failed, but has underscored the urgency for the government to add a “very robust network of supports” including prescribed opioid alternatives, housing and health care services.

B.C. United leader Kevin Falcon begs to differ.

“Over the past year, B.C. has been left victim to David Eby’s harmful decriminalization experiment, which has utterly failed to achieve its intended goals,” Falcon said in a statement. “The NDP charged ahead with this experiment without implementing the necessary safeguards, leaving families and communities paying the price.”

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