Street drug use should be decriminalized to cut deaths: B.C. health officer

VICTORIA — A push by British Columbia's health officer to decriminalize drug possession in the fight against overdoses isn't getting support from the province's solicitor general.

Dr. Bonnie Henry called on the B.C. government Wednesday to make drug possession a health issue and not a crime.

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"The current criminal justice based approach framework in B.C. and in Canada create barriers to accessing prevention and treatment services," she told a news conference. "With the crisis we are dealing with in B.C., and the impact on our families and communities, I believe we can and do need to do more."

Henry released a 48-page report that made one recommendation to "urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substance for personal use."

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said B.C. has acted to fight the overdose crisis, including supporting police pilot projects that refer offenders to treatment programs, but the government will not unilaterally decriminalize drug possession.

"We don't believe one province can go it alone," Farnworth said in Vancouver. "As is the case with cannabis (legalization), no one province could go it alone."

He said drug possession is illegal under federal law.

Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor was not available for an interview but in the transcript of a question-and-answer session with reporters she said while she is open to discussing decriminalization, her priority is to ensure drug users have a safe supply.

"I know I continuously have those conversations but ... decriminalization alone is not going to be the silver bullet solution because we recognize that the tainted drug supply is really the issue at this point in time."

B.C.'s coroner has said the arrival of the powerful opioid fentanyl is the main cause of the dramatic increase in deaths and it was detected in more than 80 per cent of the overdose deaths in 2017 and 2018.

Henry acknowledged the federal government has repeatedly said it is not prepared to change drug laws beyond the legalization of cannabis. But she said B.C. can and should move towards decriminalization in the overdose crisis, which has resulted in more than 3,000 deaths in the past two years.

B.C. can amend the Police Act to have law enforcement agencies treat drug possession as a health issue as opposed to a possible crime, Henry said. The government can also implement policy changes under the act that directs police to manage drug possession offences as non-criminal issues, she said.

Henry described the possible changes as similar to police issuing drivers 24-hour roadside suspensions as opposed to immediately pursuing drunk driving charges.

Farnworth said it is "not appropriate for me as minister to direct police to conduct their operations."

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said his officers use discretion when dealing with drug possession. He said charges rarely result in cases of simple drug possession, but officers crack down on dealers.

Manak, who attended the news conference, said he does not speak for all of B.C.'s police departments, but Victoria's force supports a move towards health-based approaches on drug possession.

"We are on the front lines and we have in our own way become subject-matter experts in this field," he said. "I believe strongly that supporting people who use illicit street drugs is best addressed through a comprehensive public health strategy and not through the criminal justice system."

Henry said the drug laws contribute to a deep-rooted shame by people with addictions and that stigma stops people from getting treatment.

Henry said decriminalization is a way to protect people from highly toxic street drugs and would allow police to help people living with addictions connect to the support they need.

Abbotsford Chief Const. Mike Serr, who also co-chairs the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police's drug advisory committee, said supporting drug users is best done through the health system and arresting people for possession won't decrease the demand for street drugs.

"We need to increase treatment, prevention and education strategies to effect real change," he said in a statement.

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