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Police speak to a man and woman on East Hastings in Vancouver's downtown eastside, on Feb 7, 2019.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

B.C.'s provincial health officer wants to create a province-wide plan where using or possessing small amounts of illicit drugs won’t result in criminal penalties, a move she says is critical in treating addiction as a health issue and reducing stigma that leads to barriers to treatment.

Bonnie Henry revealed her intention on Thursday at a news conference announcing drug overdose numbers for 2018. At least 1,489 people died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. last year – a figure that is on par with 2017’s death toll but will increase slightly as outstanding investigations conclude.

Discussing next steps, Dr. Henry said that certain jurisdictions in B.C. already have official or unofficial policies that see police officers directing people caught using or possessing small amounts of drugs to health services, rather than to the criminal-justice system.

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“But we need to do more,” she said. “We need to make that formalized across this province, what I’ve called a de-facto decriminalization." The use and possession of illicit drugs in Canada falls under federal jurisdiction.

“So right now the decriminalization of people who use drugs … and to build the off-ramps for police to connect people to support they need, rather than the criminal-justice system, are the areas I think we need to focus on.”

Dr. Henry said her office will be working with three provincial ministries – health; mental health and addictions; and justice – to explore the “history of how we got to the prohibition that we have now, and [look] at models around the world that we can use to inform how we might approach this issue in B.C.”

The goal is to release a report on these insights in March, she said.

Drug decriminalization is different from legalization. Under decriminalization, personal possession and use of small amounts of illicit drugs would no longer be subject to criminal penalties such as jail time. Manufacturing and trafficking illicit drugs would remain illegal and the quality of these drugs would remain unregulated.

In Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalized since 2001 and whose model is lauded by drug-policy experts globally, people found using are steered toward a dissuasion panel. This group then considers individual circumstances such as the person’s situation, the drug consumed and the public or private nature of consumption.

B.C. currently has a patchwork of approaches to simple drug use and possession. In Vancouver, for example, police have had a policy in place since 2003 of not attending overdose calls unless requested by paramedics. In addition, the number of charges the department recommends for possession in the absence of a more serious crime is historically low – but not zero. In 2008, there were 476 such recommendations. In 2017, that number was reduced to 30.

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In Abbotsford, police in December rolled out Project Angel, a program that started in the United States, which connects those who have just overdosed or those who commit petty crimes to support their addictions, with peers to identify possible treatment pathways. Many of those cases would have led to arrests in the past.

Police Chief Mike Serr said there have been 90 referrals to Project Angel in the two months since it was launched, and half of those referrals were connected to treatment.

“It’s something that I really believe is going to be the pathway to assisting people who are addicted, because the criminal-justice system is not that system,” Chief Serr said Thursday.

Of last year’s 1,489 overdose deaths in the province, 86 per cent involved fentanyl. Evan Wood, executive director of the BC Centre on Substance Use, said that speaks to the urgent need for a safer drug supply.

“It’s really the consensus of the public-health community that we need to look at the drug supply and we need, in a safe and thoughtful way, to look at alternatives to these toxic street drugs that have resulted as a result of prohibition," he said.

Judy Darcy, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, called 2018’s death toll “horrifyingly high” and said the province is working overtime to escalate its response to the crisis every day.

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