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Overdose crisis: BC’s top doctor wants drug possession decriminalized

B.C.’s top doctor has unveiled a bold proposal to slow the rate of overdose deaths — by decriminalizing possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s report, released Wednesday, says it is known around the world that the “war on drugs” has been a failure, and says the criminalization of non-violent people for possessing a substance for personal use does considerable harm to the person and society.

Specifically, Henry says criminalization increases communicable disease transmission, stigma and drug-related mortality. Incarceration and criminal records exacerbate drug harms by preventing future employment and travel, she adds.

“As the Provincial Health Officer of B.C., I recommend that the Province of B.C. urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use,” Henry says.

“This is a fundamental underpinning and necessary next step for the continued provincial response to the overdose crisis in B.C.”

Henry’s report, called “Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs in B.C.,” says that despite expanded harm-reduction activities and interventions in the province, and increased access to evidence-based treatment, an average of four people continue to die in B.C. each day due to the toxic illegal drug supply.

“Decriminalization of people who use controlled drugs is an effective public health approach to drug policy in other jurisdictions and is the most appropriate option for B.C. at this time,” Henry says.

“While law enforcement in B.C. exercise their discretion when considering possession charges, such as the presence of harmful behaviour or identified need for treatment services, the application of the law is inconsistent across communities. As such, there is a need for a provincial-level commitment to support an official policy to decriminalize people who use drugs.”

Henry says decriminalization would allow law enforcement to work with health and social systems to help connect people with treatment and other social services.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs for personal use in response to a surge in heroin use.

Henry said there are two means by which to decriminalize in B.C. One would use provincial legislation to allow the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor to set provincial priorities, such as declaring a public health and harm reduction approach as a priority for police to apply when toward simple possession. The other would develop a new regulation under the Police Act that would add a provision preventing police from expending resources on simple possession offences under Section 4(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.


Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry answers questions during a press conference about the release of the latest provincial statistics by the BC Coroners Service at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 7, 2019.

CHAD HIPOLITO /

THE CANADIAN PRESS

The report explains decriminalization as follows: “Decriminalization involves removing an action or behaviour from the scope of the criminal justice system. In the context of controlled substances, it is typically focused on possession and consumption of drugs for personal use and does not set out a system or structure for production, distribution, or sale of controlled substances.

“Decriminalization does not exclude the application of fines or administrative penalties. For example, if possession of drugs for personal use was decriminalized (as is the case in Portugal), the drug itself is still illegal, but possessing it does not lead to criminal sanctions (unless the possession is at a trafficking level).”

More to come.

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