Alexis Nguyen / Edge Columnist
In 2020, there was a 74% increase in drug overdoses in British Columbia compared to the previous year, hitting a record-breaking point. This number is higher than the number of deaths from homicides, car crashes, suicides and prescription drugs combined.
The provincial government wants to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. This means people will get a warning or fine for being in possession of drugs instead of a charge that will go on their criminal record.
Illicit drugs are known as illegal and addictive substances. These can include but are not limited to, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic drug and was the cause of over 80% of overdoses last year, followed by meth and cocaine.
Decriminalizing drugs will reduce the stigma around using drugs and getting help. Most people who are using drugs are also afraid of the criminal charges that may come as consequences of their habits.
The overdose crisis in B.C. has been deemed a public health emergency since 2016, meaning this is not a criminal justice issue, it is a health issue.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has stated that decriminalization is a vital first step to deal with the overdose crisis.
She has also stated that since there are crimes and stigma around getting help for drug addiction, many people will end up using drugs alone, resulting in many more preventable overdose deaths because no one is there to call for help.
Henry has pointed out the differences between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization takes away the criminal charges from possession and is an alternate way to help drug users. Activities such as making, trafficking and dealing illicit drugs will still be illegal.
B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson has stated that even though B.C. has many measures in place to lower the amount of overdose deaths, such as overdose prevention sites and more access to Naloxone, people who use drugs still have trouble being able to access these kinds of services.
Malcolmson has also reached out to Health Minister Patti Hajdu for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
She wrote in her letter, “Although B.C. has made significant progress implementing a wide-ranging overdose response, people who use drugs continue to face obstacles accessing these services. In particular, the stigma around drug use along with the fear of criminal sanctions are barriers preventing people from accessing life-saving services,” from the article B.C. asks federal government for exemption to decriminalize illicit drugs written by Richard Zussman.
The federal government has publicly stated they are not in favour of the decriminalization of illicit drugs despite facing pressure from provincial governments to take action, stating it is not a “silver bullet” solution to the issue.
Some people who are unfamiliar with the issue of drugs and substance abuse may have concerns about decriminalizing illicit drugs. They might say it will allow more people to experiment with drugs without having to worry about getting arrested, and then there won’t be enough resources to accommodate everyone.
The point of decriminalization is to reduce the amount of overdoses that occur. Along with decriminalization will have to come programs to help with mental health and substance abuse.
Decriminalization of drugs has worked in Portugal. The drug issue started after their borders opened in the late 1980s, bringing in many different kinds of drugs, getting their citizens hooked, and using drugs nearly everywhere, such as public parks, courtyards and streets.
It wasn’t until 2001 where the government decided to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and consulted a commission on implementing different support services to help those who are using drugs.
Portugal’s opioid crisis was stabilized. The number of overdose deaths, incarceration rates, drug related crimes and problematic drug use dropped significantly over the next few years.
The country was able to view addiction as a disorder that needs treatment over a problem where the user needs to be in prison. Citizens who have overcome addiction have been able to find housing, jobs and serve their communities more easily after the decriminalization of drugs.
Although Portugal has controlled their opioid crisis, the health system now has to deal with diseases caused by long-term drug use. Nevertheless, Portugal still serves as an example of how decriminalization of illicit drugs helps the opioid crisis.
If B.C. does eventually decriminalize illicit drugs, there has to be more resources that are accessible to people who use drugs, such as mental health support in addition to the services that are readily available for drug users.
Taking away the crimes involved with illicit drugs and treating the issue from as a health problem will ensure people get treatment more easily, lower the number of overdoses, prevent drug users from going to jail for non-violent crimes and make the province a safer place.
The government needs to take action to resolve this issue, and it starts with decriminalization.