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B.C. applies for decriminalization in effort to reduce toxic drug deaths

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The province is taking its first step towards decriminalization,  as it looks to curb B.C.’s toxic drug overdose crisis.

B.C. has become the first province in Canada to seek an exemption from Health Canada under Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

In a release, the province says that, if approved by the federal government, “the exemption would help reduce the fear and shame associated with substance use that prevents people from seeking care.”

“Substance use and addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” said minister of mental health and addictions, Sheila Malcolmson.

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“B.C. is adding new health and substance-use care services almost weekly, but we know shame prevents many people from accessing life-saving care. That’s why it’s crucial to decriminalize people who use drugs.”

“Today’s submission toward decriminalizing people who use drugs is one of the most important steps government has taken to address the toxic drug supply in British Columbia. Criminalization drives stigma and makes people reluctant to seek support,” said Katrina Jensen, executive director, AVI Health and Community Services.

“Decriminalization will save lives and make it easier to connect people to life-saving services, like those available at AVI. This is a logical and necessary response on the part of government’s efforts to treat this as a health issue that it is.”

Since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016, 7,700 people in B.C. have died because of a toxic drug supply.

Pre-pandemic, B.C. saw a decrease in death due to toxic drugs. However, the COVID-19 public health emergency reversed this trend, causing toxic drug poisoning deaths to reach an all-time high.

“B.C. is in the midst of two public health emergencies: COVID-19 and the toxic drug crisis,” said provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“The intersection of these two emergencies has produced tragic results. B.C.’s application to Health Canada to decriminalize people who use drugs is a vital step to keep people alive and help connect them with the health and social support they need.”

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

“Criminalizing members of our communities who use drugs has resulted in decades of causing further harms to many who are already suffering from mental or physical health challenges and/or the effects of emotional or physical trauma,” said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner.

“Decriminalization will help shift our focus from punishment, which has resulted in social isolation, stigma and fear, toward a medical model that recognizes substance use as a health issue. This is an important step that, combined with increased access to safe supply and implementation of an evidence-based model of treatment and recovery, will help to save lives.”

The province says decriminalization is a crucial component in ending the toxic drug crisis, as it “continues to create a full continuum of care that includes prevention, prescribed safer supply and other harm-reduction measures, treatment, and recovery supports.”

A broad range of partners and stakeholders played a vital role in developing the application.

The Province worked with health and social service providers, Indigenous partners, people with lived and living experience, municipalities, law enforcement, advocacy organizations and clinical and research experts.

According to the B.C. health officials, the submission is intended to support further discussions between Health Canada and the province on an approach to decriminalization in B.C.

“The stigma and shame I felt when I used drugs was overwhelming. I felt isolated and compelled to use drugs alone. I also felt persecuted by the criminal justice system because I was a person who used drugs,” said Mike Knott, a person with lived experience.

“Decriminalization will help reduce the shame felt amongst people who use drugs and enhance dignity. The toxic drug crisis is a health crisis, not a criminal one.”

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