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Decriminalizing drugs in BC: How will it impact healthcare system in Canada?

Dr. Neelam Batra Verma

Decriminalizing drugs in BC: Between 2016 and 2022, 23,000 Canadians died due to drug toxicity. Latest figures show that in 2022 as many as 2,272 people died of suspected drug toxicity in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) alone, which was slightly lower than the 2,306 records set in 2021, reported BC Coroner Service. Total drug overdose death in Canada in 2022 stood at 3,556 in the first six months of the same year, with BC taking the largest share.

Decriminalizing drugs in BC

Will legalizing just 2.5 grams of drugs end the drug overdose crisis?

The first month of 2023 has already seen at least 45 deaths in BC, which means we are losing more than 6 people a day to drug overdose, which is nothing but unacceptable. Dr. Paxton Bach, an addiction medicine specialist in a news conference last week said, “To the families of the 45 individuals who have passed away in the last week alone … to their friends and their colleagues and their communities and loved ones: my heart goes out to you and I’m so sorry that we’re continuing to fail.” Failing we surely are. “I hope that we can sit with that grief and that outrage. I hope that every citizen of the province reflects on this report and feels that outrage and uses that to drive the advocacy that is needed to generate change.” Bach is also the co-medical director of the BC Centre of Substance use. Paxton was speaking at the recently announced decriminalization initiative declaring small amounts of illegal drugs legal for those above 18 years in BC. The question is, will legalizing just 2.5 grams of certain drugs end the drug overdose crisis in the province? BC chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe admitted that this is only a “key first step” but “only one measure of many that are necessary to end this crisis.” She rightly believes that the goal should be to deter people from using drugs.

BC requested more than 2.5 grams to be legalized

A public health emergency was declared back in April 2016 in BC, the year, which saw 994 deaths due to the toxicity of illegal substances. It has taken more than six years to reach the threshold level of legalizing 2.5 grams of certain drugs for personal possession. This amount is almost half the amount requested by the province. For now, decriminalization is a three-year pilot project, which advocates have only described as half-measures.  Provincial minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside acknowledged “decriminalization of pilot alone will not fix the problem. We know there’s more to do and we won’t stop working until we turn the tide on this crisis.”

Decriminalizing drugs in BC; No criminal charges

So, what exactly is changing? Starting January 31, 2023, Health Canada granted an exemption to adults from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for possessing 2.5 grams of opioids like heroin, morphine, fentanyl, crack and powder cocaine, Methamphetamine, and Ecstasy. No criminal charges will be laid if an adult is found in possession of these and within limits and drugs will not be seized. Instead, they will be offered health and social services, including referrals to local treatment and recovery services.

This exemption does not apply to youth and if found in possession of a combined total of 2.5 grams of illegal drugs or any number of illegal drugs not on the list. Drug trafficking still remains illegal and these substances are not to be sold in stores. If drugs are found in schools, airports and such sensitive locations will be seized and criminal charges will be laid. However, local governments would still have the authority to pass bylaws restricting public substance use. The three-year project to decriminalize small amounts of some drugs for personal possession certainly is a start. Moving the opioid crisis from the criminal justice system to health care certainly will preserve life.  With health care in Canada, already under tremendous strain, how successful the project will be can only be a wait-and-watch game. However, we have miles to go before we sleep. The journey has just begun.

The author is a senior journalist based in Canada, she is the author of the book, 1971: A War Story.

(Views expressed above, solely belong to the author)

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