Canada’s decriminalization pilot faces criticism

Apr 24, 2024

A recent article published by BBC News and authored by Nadine Yousif examined the scrutiny faced by British Columbia’s drug decriminalization pilot.

In 2016, B.C. declared a public health emergency over opioid-related illicit overdose deaths. Subsequently, in 2023, the province decriminalized the possession of up to 2.5 grams of some illicit drugs for personal use. The exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act extends to drugs including opioids, crack, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. In addition, legislation changes have allowed physicians to prescribe “safe supply”, or regulated alternatives to illicit street drugs, to individuals suffering from substance use disorder.

However, despite decriminalization and implementation of safe supply, the number of overdose deaths in the province continues to grow, reaching a record of 2,511 in 2023, as well as a total of over 14,000 deaths since 2016.

According to Brittany Graham, executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), “political backlash” against the decriminalization pilot has increased since its implementation. She noted that many right-wing organizations and politicians have used the policy “as a means to push their own agenda to have more [police presence], » despite no existing evidence exists to suggest that more police enforcement is needed. “We haven’t seen an increase in public use, we haven’t seen an increase in people being in more parks … and yet there’s multiple news stories about this perceived harm.”

Furthermore, the introduction of a bill that would prohibit drug use in public areas such as schools and airports, playgrounds, as well as near homes and businesses, was blocked by the B.C. Supreme Court over the potential for increased harm for individuals who use drugs, a move which has raised concerns and criticism from B.C. residents.

So far, several B.C. municipalities have already passed bylaws to restrict public drug consumption. While there is no data indicating how much public drug consumption has increased after decriminalisation, there has been a 76% decrease in drug possession charges in the first year of its implementation.

In her interview with CBC News, Dr. Kora DeBeck, a research scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use, said she didn’t expect to see major changes in the months after decriminalization. “I think we’re well positioned to succeed within decriminalization, but if we think about succeeding more broadly around how we’re addressing substance use, then we need a much more fulsome intervention,” she said.

“From a long-term perspective — moving towards the regulation of drugs … expanding our addiction treatment systems and ensuring that people have access to addiction treatment in the ways that they need, when they want, ensuring that we’re adequately supporting prevention and supporting families when they’re young (and) vulnerable communities.”

Dr. Kora DeBeck, research scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use

Furthermore, Brittany Graham added that bylaws restricting public drug use add to the stigma and reduce safety, given that individuals struggling with homelessness have nowhere else to go.

“A small percentage of people are choosing to use in public spaces. If they had a home, if they had options, if they had detox services, if they had any of the things that they needed — there’s very few people that would purposely choose to be in a park to use drugs, but we’re not acknowledging that none of those things exist for that person,” Graham said.