March 3rd, 2024

Ending drug decriminalization won’t save lives, B.C. minister says on anniversary

By The Canadian Press on January 31, 2024.

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside steps away from the podium after speaking during a news conference in Vancouver, on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Whiteside says ending the province's three-year drug decriminalization project won't save "a single life," as the overdose death toll continues to rise. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VICTORIA – British Columbia’s Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside says ending the province’s three-year drug decriminalization project won’t save “a single life,” as the overdose death toll continues to rise.

Whiteside says in a statement marking the one-year anniversary of the start of the project that its goal is to reduce shame and make addicted people more comfortable reaching out for help.

On Jan. 31 last year, Health Canada issued B.C. a three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act allowing adult drug users to carry up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy for personal use.

The exemption came amid an overdose crisis that has claimed almost 14,000 lives in B.C. since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016.

Deaths due to suspected illicit drugs hit a record 2,511 last year, something Whiteside says is “concerning.”

She says toxic drug deaths are increasing across the country and B.C. is no exception.

“Ending this measure will not save a single life,” Whiteside said in the statement.

“As the toxicity of illicit street drugs continues to increase, more people are at serious risk.”

She said there was “no single solution” to the emergency, and the government would continue to use “every tool available to save lives and connect people to care.”

B.C.’s retiring chief coroner Lisa Lapointe has called for the government to introduce the non-prescription safe supply of drugs, something Premier David Eby rejects.

Eby last week called it a “fundamental issue” of disagreement with Lapointe.

Decriminalization has brought criticism from municipal and opposition politicians, who say it has allowed open drug use in public places.

The opposition BC United party says it will immediately end decriminalization if elected in October, calling it a “failed and reckless” strategy.

The provincial government moved to make legislative changes expanding areas where drug use is prohibited, but a nurses group went to B.C. Supreme Court, where a judge temporarily stayed the law in December, citing harm to those who use drugs.

The B.C. government is appealing the decision.

Police in B.C. have also expressed disappointment in the court ruling, while supporting decriminalization.

Deputy Chief Const. Fiona Wilson of the Vancouver Police Department, who is also president of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said in a statement issued by Whiteside’s ministry that police leaders “stand committed in our desire to not criminalize those who use drugs, but to redirect individuals to alternate pathways of care.”

“This is a complex public-health crisis that we must continue to work together to address as we know the overdose crisis continues to devastate communities throughout British Columbia,” Wilson said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2024.

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