Addictions Minister says decriminalization and safe supply are saving lives in BC

Aug 18, 2023

Earlier in June, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett, said that early indicators demonstrate that decriminalization of small amounts of hard drugs in B.C. is helping to save lives by reducing the number of opioid-related deaths in the province.  

In January, Health Canada allowed B.C. to decriminalize personal possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for adults in an effort to reduce drug-related harms during the ongoing toxic drug crisis.

However, the minister also added that there is currently “damaging” backlash and “misinformation” about British Columbia’s safer supply program and drug decriminalization pilot. In May, the Parliament voted down the motion against the federal government’s harm reduction policies, including safe supply, led by Pierre Poilievre. She noted that attacks on safe supply can discourage individuals from accessing life-saving harm reduction tools.

According to Bennett, the first analysis of the impact of the pilot, conducted by independent researchers in concert with Health Canada, will be released soon.” And then we will stop hearing these anecdotes that are being pulled out to disparage some of the most vulnerable people in our communities,” she said.

In addition, the safer supply programs implemented in B.C. are already showing positive results, as shown by other studies.  However, some harm reduction advocates say the existing safe supply programs are too narrow and inaccessible for individuals who could benefit from them.

Recent data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control demonstrates that only about 5% of the estimated 100,000 people who are diagnosed with opioid use disorder in B.C. have accessed alternatives, and most of them are in the Lower Mainland, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

In addition, while the majority of individuals dying due to a toxic overdose were not diagnosed with substance use disorder, a diagnosis is required to access the safe supply programs.

“They’re highly medicalized, there’s limited access, [it’s] very challenging for rural and remote settings,” said Erica Schoen, a registered nurse and community researcher with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition at Simon Fraser University (SFU), in her interview with CBC News. “They’re highly medicalized, there’s limited access, [it’s] very challenging for rural and remote settings… It’s not meeting the needs of most of the people.”