The May 31 announcement of the decriminalization of small amounts of illegal street drugs is a start, but nowhere near what is needed to effectively address the opioid crisis in B.C., says the project co-ordinator of the Comox Valley Community Action Team (CAT).
“It is a groundbreaking announcement, in the sense that this is the first jurisdiction in Canada to achieve decriminalization for personal use of drugs, which is a very important step in the right direction. However, it isn’t what was requested in terms of the thresholds of limits that people can hold, and that is problematic,” said Shari Dunnet.
Beginning on Jan. 31, 2023, British Columbians 18 and older will be allowed to carry up to 2.5 grams of street drugs on them, which can include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA. The province’s request to Health Canada was for a 4.5 gram carry threshold.
“Governments are always making decisions that have to appease polarized sides, and take in all the various perspectives, and they kind of arrive at a middle ground, a lot of the time,” said Dunnet. “Unfortunately in this situation, the middle ground means people will die. The middle ground is not the place we need to be in this particular situation. It is so different.
“We have a criminalized lens. We need to view it through a health lens. This is a step, but it’s a flawed step.”
Dunnet said the decriminalzation alone will not curb the crisis. That process is a three-pronged approach: decriminalization, safe regulated supply, and availability of that safe supply.
Decriminalization helps invisible users
Statistics show more than 80 per cent of the 9,364 deaths since 2016 were by people who were using alone. Dunnet explained that the criminalization of street drugs is a major reason for people using alone – and many of those using alone are doing so to disguise their drug use.
“The reason why people are using alone is because they potentially will be criminalized and charged if anybody finds out they are using,” said Dunnet. “There are people who have a lot of status, who are using these drugs, and they have a lot to lose. There are many people who a lot of their family doesn’t know, their friends don’t know… Criminalization comes with potentially losing your employment, possibly difficulty with housing, even child custody. So it carries some really big punishments with it, as well as restrictions in your life.”
Toronto Public Health has also filed a decriminalization proposal, while other jurisdictions, such as Edmonton and Montreal, are considering their options.