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BC Health Officer Justifies Drug Decriminalization Amidst Province’s Alarming Surge in Overdose Deaths

As B.C. grapples with record-breaking overdose deaths so far this year, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is defending the government’s stance on the decriminalization of illicit drugs.

Her remarks came at an opening session of the 2023 Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) convention on Sept. 18 as she addressed municipal leaders who are dealing with the impact of the drug crisis in their towns and cities.

She said the decriminalization pilot that began in the province in January 2023 was “not perfect,” but said it saves lives. She said addiction is a complex issue and argued that arresting more people in the community will not help resolve the challenges. She conceded, however, that children should be protected from witnessing drug consumption in public.

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As part of the safe supply program, established in July 2021 in B.C. to reduce overdoses by providing medical alternatives to toxic street supply, Dr. Henry told The Canadian Press on Sept. 18 that she is about to release two findings with recommendations to the government regarding medical models and other options.

“The premier actually, in response to concerns that were being raised by a number of people, asked me to do a review of the prescribed safer supply program that’s in existence,” Dr. Henry said.

“I’ve been doing that over the last couple of months, meeting with prescribers, researchers, people with lived and living experience and community members across the province.”

Dr. Henry said another report will come shorty that will look into pharmaceutical alternatives to the street drug supply and supply programs.

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, there was a record-setting 1,455 overdoses in the province in July.

Gladys Atrill, the mayor of Smithers, B.C., who was in attendance at UBCM, says small towns need more resources to deal with the challenges of addiction.

“The scale of the problem in our little community, I think, would astonish people when they come there,” she said. “We see what happens in [Vancouver’s] Downtown Eastside, it’s in the news. Our town’s not in the news, but it’s the same.”

Decriminalization is top of the agenda at the annual convention, and delegates will be voting on resolutions that ask the government to expand prohibitions on possession. Another resolution facing a vote asks the province to better fund mental health and addiction treatment, recovery services, and overdose prevention.

Children’s Safety

The resolutions slated for voting at the convention are a result of modifications made to the pilot program that was launched in early 2023 involving the decriminalization of small amounts of illegal drugs.

On Sept. 14, Ottawa approved B.C.’s request for an amendment to the province’s drug possession exemption, which allowed adults to possess a specified quantity of hard drugs. The amendment, which took effect Sept. 18, revokes the exemption in certain areas—namely, children’s play areas: outdoor playgrounds, spray pools, wading pools, and skate parks.

In order to further regulate the “possession and use” of illegal narcotics in areas where children gather, the province is urged in the draft UBCM resolution to enact legislation this fall.

Coun. Kurtis Rabel of the Pouce Coupe, B.C., said the existing drug use prohibitions do not go far enough.

“Our communities are not an experiment,” Mr. Rabel told The Canadian Press at UBCM. “These are harmful substances. Although, yes, there’s the need for rehabilitation and detox, open substance use is causing severe property problems in our communities and is tearing our communities apart.”

Meanwhile, a federal survey conducted earlier this year found that B.C. residents were largely not in favour of the decriminalization of hard drugs. Respondents felt the federal government should instead be focused on “discouraging opioid use, including implementing greater penalties for those using and distributing these substances,” the report said.

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

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