BC insists its unregulated illicit drug policy works despite record deaths

Illicit drugs
Illicit drugsWS file photo

One year into BC’s three-year drug decriminalization experiment, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside says ending decriminalization won’t save “a single life,” even though BC had a record-high number of overdose deaths in 2023.

On January 31 2023, Health Canada issued BC 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 overdose crisis has claimed almost 14,000 lives in BC since a public health emergency was declared in April 2016. Deaths due to suspected illicit drugs hit a record 2,511 last year.

"The decriminalization pilot project is part of BC’s broader work to address the ongoing toxic drug crisis and we are beginning to see results. We have already seen a decrease in the criminalizing of people who are living with addiction, so they can be better connected to health care they need," Whiteside wrote.

“This past year has seen a concerning increase in toxic drug deaths in provinces across the country and BC was no exception. Ending this measure will not save a single life. As the toxicity of illicit street drugs continues to increase, more people are at serious risk."

In her statement, Whiteside said the goal was "to reduce the fear and shame associated with addiction, so more people can feel comfortable reaching out for help" and to keep people from being "trapped in the court system."

"Fear of criminal repercussions increases risks of overdose by leading people with addiction challenges to hide their substance use and deters people from calling for help during an overdose," she explained.

“Our government remains determined to stem the tide of the illicit drug poisoning crisis by doing everything we can to help people and save lives. This measure, as one part of our comprehensive, ongoing actions, will help us get there.”

The BC Coroners Service issued a public safety warning in December that toxic drug deaths in BC numbered seven per day in the previous seven weeks.

"Unregulated drug deaths in the winter months have historically increased over the numbers reported during the rest of the year, so this early increase could be a sign of another challenging season for people who use drugs in BC," her office said in a statement.

Toxic drugs are the leading cause of death in BC for persons aged 10 to 59, accounting for more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases combined, according to the BCCS.

Coroner Lisa Lapointe announced her resignation in December, effective February 18 this year.

"We see these ad hoc announcements but sadly what we haven't seen is a thoughtful, evidence-based, data-driven plan for how we are going to reduce the number of deaths in our province," Lapointe said in an interview with CBC.

Lapointe said she was worried about politics creeping into public health decisions, especially regarding overdose policies. She issued a death review panel report calling for a safe supply of drugs without prescription, but both the minister and the opposition critic rejected the idea. In the interview, she openly questioned whether the government had even read it.

Federal Conservative candidate Aaron Gunn had a critical view of safe supply policies in his 2022 documentary Vancouver is Dying. The film suggested that harm reduction and soft-on-crime policies were facilitating crime and drug-related deaths.

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