May 22nd, 2024

Drug user advocates concerned about B.C.’s decriminalization exception request

By Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press on April 28, 2024.

Drug user advocates are raising concerns over British Columbia's request for Health Canada to give police power to step in when they see illicit drug use in public spaces, saying it may be a step backward in the fight against the deadly opioid crisis. Andrew Leavens, front left, and Carl Gladue, front right, carry an empty coffin during a march organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – Advocates for drug users are raising concerns about British Columbia’s request for Health Canada to empower police to step in when they see illicit drug use in public spaces, saying it may be a step backward in the fight against the deadly opioid crisis.

Brittany Graham, the executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said though she hasn’t seen the specifics, the proposed change currently only seems to affect those who have no home and are living in poverty.

“They are going to be recriminalized in every sense of the word and it is very disappointing, in the middle of this overdose crisis when 14,000 people have died, that our current government is blaming our larger problems of homelessness, and poverty, and the welfare state on the individual people who have nowhere to go,” she said in a phone interview.

Graham said the fallout from the proposed change shines a light on other issues the government should be more focused on addressing.

“People cannot afford housing anymore,” she said. “This is a housing issue, not a decriminalization issue.”

The three-year decriminalization pilot project was enacted on Jan. 31, 2023, exempting those who are in possession of small amounts of opioids from facing criminal charges. Exemptions apply to drugs including heroin and fentanyl, as well as cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, in quantities of 2.5 grams or less.

The province said Friday that it was working with Health Canada to “urgently change the decriminalization policy to stop drug use in public.”

B.C.’s request comes after repeated criticism from politicians, health workers and police about the policy, including open drug use in public spaces.

The province previously tried to make drug use illegal in public places with its own legislation, but the Harm Reduction Nurses Association challenged the bill in court.

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled in December that if the laws were enacted, “irreparable harm will be caused.”

Premier David Eby said the province has now asked for the changes to come from Health Canada by requesting an amendment to its exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The requested change would give police the power to step in when they see illicit drug use in public spaces, including inside hospitals, on transit and in parks.

Corey Ranger, president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, called the move “grossly unethical.”

“We’re very concerned, and truthfully believe this to be an improper circumvention of the BC Supreme Court order,” he said in an interview. “B.C. has not acted transparently, nor have they consulted with people who are going to be most affected by this issue.”

The association issued a news release earlier this month saying it had reached out to the provincial government “to discuss legal and policy changes.”

“The association is asking the province to engage in productive efforts rather than continuing to defend a law that puts lives at risk,” the April 16 news release said of the legislation.

Ranger said Friday’s announcement came as a surprise, noting the province did not provide a formal response to the association’s request.

“It seems like their response was their announcement that they were going to seek an amendment to their exemption for the decriminalization pilot,” he said.

Ranger said he believes the request was an attempt to “score political points” ahead of a provincial election set for the fall.

“We should work toward solutions like housing and mental health supports and instead, they regressed to the only thing they know, which is punishment,” he said.

Ranger said the association is not yet able to determine what the next steps will be because members have not yet seen the province’s request.

The premier’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment on the criticisms.

Eby said during a news conference on Friday that police need tools to address extraordinary circumstances when people are compromising public safety through their drug use. He said police will receive guidance to only arrest people for simple possession in “exceptional circumstances.”

Guy Felicella, a Vancouver-based harm reduction expert, saidhe agrees there should be some rules around public consumption in places like playgrounds, but he still has many questions about what the exemption would mean, specifically regarding police discretion.

“That’s the part that’s concerning to me and that’s the stuff that I need clarity on,” he said.

As someone who struggled with addiction for decades and faced more than 50 drug-related convictions, he said he believes recriminalization will not work.

“When you get caught up in this, it’s very, very, very hard to break free from,” he said of the justice system.

“It’s just a revolving door (of) rinse, wash and repeat for decades, and I can tell you, when I look back on it, it was probably the hardest thing to ever break free from.”

He credits his recovery largely to harm reduction services.

“Without harm reduction, I wouldn’t be alive today, my kids wouldn’t be alive today and I wouldn’t have over 11 years sober in my work. My recovery gives me the life that I have today,” Felicella said. “But it was all built on a continuum of care from harm reduction to recovery services.”

He said he is grateful the province supports supervised consumption and other harm reduction methods, but argues there needs to be more buy-in from municipalities across the province.

“We have to give them somewhere to go,” he said of drug users.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2024.

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