May 21st, 2024

B.C. drug use advocates warn decriminalization change may cause more drug deaths

By The Canadian Press on May 8, 2024.

An empty coffin is carried during a march organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Thursday, August 31, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – The executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users says Health Canada’s decision to allow British Columbia to again prohibit the use of illicit drugs in most public spaces will cause more deaths, calling it “prohibition 2.0.”

Brittany Graham says the initial decriminalization exemption in January 2023 had called for consistent engagement with stakeholders, people with lived experience and advocates, but none of that happened before B.C. asked for the change.

She says increased policing will not fix the overdose crisis, which has claimed more than 14,000 lives since 2016, and instead the province should be focused on increasing housing, overdose prevention services and improving welfare services.

Premier David Eby says the goal is to minimize risk to people using illicit drugs without compromising public safety, but the government heard from community members and police that they initially missed the mark.

Eby said during a news conference on a separate issue today the change is the result of a “spike” in public drug use following the launch of the province’s decriminalization pilot project.

But Graham says that is incorrect, and pointed to a March news conference where Vancouver police Insp. Phil Heard told reporters that his department had “seen a decrease in public complaints around public consumption.”

Graham suggested the move is more about politics ahead of a provincial election this fall rather than minimizing overdose deaths.

“Everyone’s just trying to win seats, whether they currently are elected, or want to be elected,” she says in an interview. “No one’s actually thinking about what will be best for the people who currently use drugs.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024.

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