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British Columbia Calls for Decriminalization as Next Step to Reduce Toxic Drug Deaths

By on November 1, 2021 0

British Columbia has taken a big step forward in preventing drug poisoning deaths by calling on the federal government to remove criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for their personal use.

British Columbia is the first province in Canada to seek an exemption from Health Canada under section 56 (1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. If approved by the federal government, the exemption would help reduce the fear and shame associated with the use of substances that prevent people from seeking care.

“Substance use and addiction is a public health problem, not a criminal problem,” said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “British Columbia is adding new health care and addiction services almost every week, but we know shame prevents many people from accessing life-saving care. That is why it is crucial to decriminalize people who use drugs.

Since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016, 7,700 British Columbians have died from a supply of toxic drugs. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, British Columbia saw a decrease in the number of deaths from toxic drugs. However, the public health emergency linked to COVID-19 has reversed this trend, pushing the death toll from toxic drug poisoning to an all-time high.

“British Columbia is in the midst of two public health emergencies: COVID-19 and the toxic drug crisis,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia. “The intersection of these two emergencies has produced tragic results. British Columbia’s call on Health Canada to decriminalize people who use drugs is a vital step in keeping people alive and helping them get the health and social support they need.

By treating substance use as a public health problem rather than a criminal act, the province will create new avenues to support those seeking treatment.

“The criminalization of members of our communities who use drugs has caused decades of additional harm to many people who already suffer from mental or physical health problems and / or the effects of emotional or physical trauma,” said Lisa Lapointe, Chief Coroner of British Columbia. “Decriminalization will help us move from punishment, which has resulted in social isolation, stigma and fear, to a medical model that recognizes substance use as a health problem. This is an important step that, combined with increased access to a safe supply and the implementation of an evidence-based treatment and recovery model, will help save lives. “

British Columbia is transforming health and addictions services across the province, as outlined in A Pathway to Hope, the province’s mental health and addiction roadmap. Decriminalization is critical to ending the toxic drug crisis, as the province continues to create a comprehensive continuum of care that includes prevention, prescribed safer supply and other harm reduction measures, treatments and recovery supports.

A wide range of partners and stakeholders played a vital role in the development of the app. The province has worked with health and social service providers, Indigenous partners, people with lived and lived experience, municipalities, law enforcement agencies, advocacy organizations and clinical experts and of research. The presentation aims to support further discussions between Health Canada and the Government of British Columbia on a decriminalization approach in British Columbia.


Mike Knott, a person with lived experience –

“The stigma and shame I felt when I used drugs was overwhelming. I felt isolated and compelled to use drugs on my own. I also felt persecuted by the criminal justice system because I was a person who used drugs. Decriminalization will help reduce the shame felt by people who use drugs and enhance dignity. The toxic drug crisis is a health crisis, not a criminal one. ”

Senator Larry Campbell, Senate of Canada –

“I want to commend the provincial government for being the first in Canada to engage in this critical issue. We know that drug use is a health problem, not a criminal problem. This means that we must respond with a public health approach, not a criminal justice approach. The move towards decriminalization is one of the most important steps a government can take to save lives, families and communities.

Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria –

“The toxic drug crisis continues to devastate our communities and break families. Decriminalization is an important step in reducing the stigma associated with drug use and saving the lives of people who use them. We thank the province for its leadership in submitting a decriminalization request to Health Canada and we hope that Health Canada will respond favorably and quickly.

Katrina Jensen, Executive Director, AVI Health and Community Services –

“Today’s presentation supporting the decriminalization of people who use drugs is one of the most important steps the government has taken to address the toxic drug supply in British Columbia. Criminalization leads to stigma and makes people reluctant to seek help. Decriminalization will save lives and make it easier for people to connect to vital services, such as those available from AVI. This is a logical and necessary response from the government’s efforts to treat this problem as a health problem.

Learn more:

To view BC’s decriminalization submission to the federal government, visit: https://news.gov.bc.ca/files/DecrimSubmission.pdf

A Path to Hope: https://news.gov.bc.ca/files/BCMentalHealthRoadmap_2019.pdf

Stop Overdose BC: https://www.stopoverdose.gov.bc.ca/

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