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LETTERS: Local housing organization supports decriminalization of drug possession

The Kamloops and District Elizabeth Fry Society supports the provincial health officer's recommendation to decriminalize drug possession. (via Thinkstock)

Dear Editor:

In her report, “Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs in BC,” British Columbia’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry recently called for all levels of government to decriminalize all drug possession offences.

Under Dr. Henry’s proposal selling, distributing, and importing drugs would remain criminal offences, punishable by jail sentences. However, possession of small amounts of drugs would cease to be a criminal matter or to result in a criminal record. The goal of this proposed measure is to reduce the number of overdose deaths which are a direct result of criminalizing people who use drugs, and to reduce the social and economic costs of this failed and brutal response to a public health emergency.

The Kamloops and District Elizabeth Fry Society would like to echo Dr. Henry’s sentiments in the strongest possible terms.

The so-called “War on Drugs” is, for all intents and purposes, a war on poor, racialized, marginalized, and traumatized Canadians. An average of four British Columbians die daily from overdoses, a death toll kept artificially high by the criminalizing of people who use drugs. This policy stigmatizes drug users who are consequently less likely to seek treatment, and fear of arrest forces them underground where they are far more likely to overdose alone.

One need only examine the United States where over 400,000 have perished and entire regions have been devastated to see the fruits of a punitive approach to addiction, administered by the criminal justice system.

According to scientific research, harm reduction measures like the distribution of naloxone kits and the creation of safe consumption sites are the best strategy for reducing fatalities. Without the ones currently in place, Dr. Henry estimates 60 per cent more people would have overdosed. However, while limited harm reduction policies have spared Canadians from some of the worst consequences, the continued criminalization of this ill and vulnerable population guarantees people continue to die needlessly.

Portugal provides an example of the success that can be gained with the decriminalization of drugs.

Since Portugal decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs overdose deaths have plummeted 80 per cent. Whereas Portugal’s death rate from overdoses is 3.3 per 1,000,000 citizens, Canada’s is 118, a more than thirty-fold increase. Decriminalization and a focus on harm reduction has also led to a 90 per cent reduction in HIV infection among Portuguese drug users.

Importantly, decriminalization has not led to any increase in rates of drug use among Portuguese people. Portugal also has extensive, easily accessible treatment programs, which has encouraged roughly half of all high-risk opioid users to seek treatment, in contrast to Canada where only a tiny fraction of users access the patchwork of poorly funded treatment programs.

The body count from the opioid epidemic is so high that it has had a measurably negative effect on the average life expectancy of all British Columbians.

Overdose deaths are now the leading cause of unnatural deaths in the province, easily outpacing murders and motor vehicle accidents.

The situation is dire. That is why it imperative the federal government eliminate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs.

However, local and provincial politicians cannot wait for the federal government to act. Any bold initiatives are unlikely during an election year and, by that point, this cruel and ruinously expensive war will have claimed hundreds more victims.

Therefore, Kamloops and District Elizabeth Fry Society endorses both of Dr. Henry’s urgent recommendations:

1) Make public health and harm reduction a provincial priority under the Police Act, as an instrument to guide law enforcement towards decriminalization

2) Draft a new regulation under the Police Act forbidding officers from expending public resources on the enforcement of simple possession offences.

The province has the power to take both these steps immediately, without passing new legislation. The public ought to demand police forces stop wasting public funds on the current dangerous and discredited approach to addiction. Drug users are citizens who do not deserve to be treated as criminals. Substance misuse is a public health issue. Public health professionals are best equipped to help people heal and recover. Employing police to arrest drug users makes as much sense as employing social workers to track down murderers.

Few would support jailing people for eating potato chips, smoking cigarettes, or drinking beer, to prevent heart disease, lung cancer, or cirrhosis. Health professionals and legislators address the harms of those substances through a combination of education, regulation, moderation, prevention, taxation, and medication. There is no sensible reason to treat drug use, or drug users, any differently.

Elizabeth Fry Society Kamloops Board