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A patient displays their 'safe supply' of an opioid alternative provided by the local health unit in Vancouver in April 2020 to combat overdoses.JESSE WINTER/Reuters

The federal Minister for Mental Health and Addictions will meet with her British Columbia counterpart as well as with law enforcement officials next week to discuss fallout from the province’s drug policies, including decriminalization and safer supply.

Both governments have been battered by criticism after a Vancouver police official explained to a parliamentary committee earlier this week how prescribed opioids meant to be a safer alternative for drug users are instead being sold on the street and that officers’ hands are tied when responding to complaints of open drug use.

A statement from the office of Ya’ara Saks, the federal Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, said she would be meeting with B.C.’s Jennifer Whiteside to discuss these matters. The meetings are a regular occurrence.

British Columbia embarked on a pilot project Jan. 31, 2023, to decriminalize small amounts of street drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine for personal consumption. The project could only go ahead with the agreement of the federal government to exempt the province from sections in the Criminal Code pertaining to drug use.

“We have indicated from the outset that the BC exemption would be rigorously monitored and evaluated,” Ms. Saks’s statement said.

Ms. Whiteside said in a statement that decriminalization would be on the list of topics to discuss.

B.C.’s decriminalization trial faces increasing challenges after first year

Also Thursday, B.C. Premier David Eby said Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth is meeting with police officials to discuss Monday’s testimony in front of the House of Commons health committee, statements which the Premier has said came as a surprise.

Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson of the Vancouver Police Department, who is also president of the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police, testified at the committee that police do not believe arresting those who use drugs in public will save lives or solve the addiction crisis. But she said decriminalization went ahead without “fulsome” guardrails against public consumption, including in places like parks, beaches and around public transit.

She also told the committee that among patients who are prescribed the opioid hydromorphone, about 20 per cent have the prescription as part of B.C.’s program of providing safer pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs. But she said about half of the hydromorphone pills seized by police come from the safer supply program.

Her comments came as a surprise to Mr. Eby, who said the Vancouver Police have not supplied the province with that data. Last month, Mr. Farnworth and the RCMP’s assistant commissioner in B.C. said there was no evidence of widespread diversion of hydromorphone.

Dwayne McDonald, the RCMP’s deputy commissioner and commanding officer of E Division in B.C., also told the committee that diversion of hydromorphone “presents an emerging concern that requires forthright attention.”

On decriminalization, Ms. Wilson noted that if someone is having a family day at a beach and a person next to them is smoking crack cocaine, “it’s not a police matter, because the beach currently is not an exemption to the exemption.”

Last fall, the B.C. government attempted to introduce legislation to ban public drug use from a series of areas, including parks and beaches. But the legislation was put on hold by a judge, who found the limits imposed by the legislation could force drug users to hide their drug use, causing “irreparable harm.” The B.C. government failed in its attempt to have the ruling overturned. A constitutional challenge to the law will go to court later this summer.

The testimony in Ottawa came on the heels of several complaints by B.C. nurses last week who shared stories of their exposure to patients who defy hospital rules and smoke fentanyl or methamphetamine in their rooms.

Studies on B.C. safer supply emerge, finding different answers to different questions

In response, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced the province would create a task force to standardize rules and create “active supports” to help patients manage their addictions while in care.

Some hospitals already provide designated-use spaces where staff monitor for overdoses. The Globe and Mail asked Mr. Dix last Thursday whether every hospital in B.C. would be required to follow suit.

“That is the purpose of the effort – not just to standardize rules,” he said.

This week, Mr. Eby clarified that not all hospitals would have overdose prevention sites.

“There will be no province-wide mandate that every single hospital has to have an OPS or a consumption area because every single hospital doesn’t have this issue. What we’ll be focused on is how do we ensure that the rule is followed and that everybody who visits hospitals is safe.”

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