Vancouver City Councillor Jean Swanson hands out a safe supply of drugs with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, July 14, 2021. Credit: Jean Swanson / Twitter

British Columbia could soon become the first Canadian province to decriminalize drug use for individuals.

In a significant shift, the province applied to the federal government on Nov. 1 to “remove criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.”

The exemption, the first of its kind in Canada, “would help reduce the fear and shame associated with substance use that prevents people from seeking care.”

The move makes B.C. the first Canadian province to seek an exemption from Health Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The proposed law would mean that the those 19 or older who were found to be in possession of  a “controlled substance” would be exempt from criminal charges, as long as the drugs in their possession “did not exceed the thresholds for ‘personal possession.'”

B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016. Since then, more than 7,500 British Columbians have died because of a toxic drug supply.

It’s no accident Canada is experiencing an opioid epidemic. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada is the nation with the second highest rate of opioid consumption worldwide.

In September, Canada’s Public Health Agency released a study looking at opioid and stimulant-related harms. According to the study, 20 Canadians died each day from opioid toxicity deaths between January and March alone, for a total of 1,772 deaths.

The study also found deaths related to poisoned drug supply increased by 88 per cent during the pandemic, from April 2020 to March 2021. The nearly 7,000 deaths during this time nearly doubled from the approximately 3,700 deaths in the same time period the previous year — April 2019 to March 2020.

For men, the stigma around substance use disorder can be deadly. Men made up 75 per cent of poisoned drug supply deaths from January to March, with the majority of deaths among those aged 20-49.

Potential for piecemeal policy

For Donald MacPherson, executive director for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Canada needs to “reallocate the criminal justice system to the health system.”

MacPherson, a self-described “accidental” drug policy expert, began working with safe supply and decriminalization during the AIDs crisis, when he noticed hundreds of people in his community dying from HIV which was spreading via injection drug use.

“The lack of response by all levels of government confounded me,” MacPherson explained. “So I became very passionate about trying to move the dial at the time.”

More recently, MacPherson and the coalition have shifted focus to the “abandon[ed] public policy of substance use that could be looking through the lens of public health and human rights.”

While MacPherson applauds the B.C. provincial government for its proposed shift, he worries that leaving lower jurisdictions to implement varying decriminalization laws will create inconsistent and “piecemeal” policies around the country.

“This is a federal law. The federal government hasn’t taken this leadership,” MacPherson said. “They should be taking the leadership to decriminalize simple possession for drugs across Canada.”

NDP calls for federal action

NDP MP and critic for mental health and addictions Gord Johns told rabble in an interview last week that ending the stigma around substance use disorders starts with the prime minister.

“The public is way ahead of politicians,” Johns said, on the subject of decriminalization.

Johns warned that without decriminalizing drug use for individuals, people with substance use disorders will continue to suffer “in the shadows in silence,” hiding their substance use and avoiding harm reduction services as well as treatment.

Johns accused Trudeau directly of failing to take action on decriminalization nationwide, saying “he understands that this is a health issue, but he hasn’t responded to that.”

“We’ve seen more people in British Columbia die from an overdose crisis than from COVID-19, yet we don’t see the same political will from the federal government,” Johns said.

Johns called on the Trudeau government to declare a public health emergency, implement the full decriminalization of simple possession, and ensure a regulated safe supply.

In addition, Johns believes criminal records for possession should be expunged, as well as providing both an on-demand treatment option through the Canadian health care system, and a more effective prevention and public education campaign around substance use disorders.

In an emailed statement to rabble.ca, a spokesperson for Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett neglected to answer why Canada hasn’t issued a public health emergency for toxic drug supply deaths. A question asking the minister whether the federal government is considering decriminalization on a countrywide level — and if not, why — also went unanswered.

“As the opioid and overdose crisis continues to worsen we must take every measure possible to reduce harms and save lives … We know there is more to do and our government will remain engaged with [partners] to move these health-based approaches forward,” the statement read.

In a Nov. 2 news release, the federal NDP endorsed the B.C. provincial government’s proposal to decriminalize drug use while calling for similar legislation country-wide.

NDP Health Critic Don Davies called the suffering from substance use disorders in B.C. “unfathomable.”

“It’s clear our current approach isn’t working; families and communities are being destroyed. This is an epidemic that impacts Canadians of all backgrounds, and while decriminalization in B.C. is a good step, we need to decriminalize drug possession across the country,” Davies said in the release.

Advocate calls for safe supply

Jean Swanson, Vancouver city councillor, made headlines last summer for handing out free heroin in front of a police station. The move, which police declined to prosecute, was part of the group Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users’ efforts to provide a safe supply to people who use substances in hopes of preventing overdose deaths from toxic drugs.

Both Swanson and Johns pointed to the startling statistic of six deaths per day in B.C. because of a poisoned drug supply.

“Decriminalization will take this stigma off and it might keep a few people from being arrested, [or] keep them from having their drugs confiscated,” Swanson explained.

Swanson said safe-supply sites have been desperately needed in Vancouver for the last 20 to 30 years to provide a clean drug supply to those who use substances. Despite the dire need, the federal government hasn’t taken action, forcing nurses to volunteer onsite and Good Samaritans to open up storefronts as safe-supply units — actions that are illegal in B.C.

“I have friends who have died grieving, who shouldn’t have died,” Swanson said, adding, “maybe if we start saving lives illegally, it’s actually a good thing.”

Swanson pointed out that Vancouver recently passed legislation she presented to allow a safe-supply compassion club in the city.

For Swanson, the volunteers at the illegal “compassion clubs” are the real heroes.

“Those are people who have revived hundreds of people and kept them from dying,” Swanson said. “But they also all have friends who are dying every day.”

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...