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People gather during the National Day of Action on the Overdose Crisis at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, on April 16, 2019.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

B.C. NDP members have drafted a resolution criticizing their own party for not working fast enough on providing a regulated supply of drugs and decriminalizing possession of personal amounts, measures they say would mitigate the risks of preventable overdose deaths.

At least 10 riding associations and union groups submitted the resolution to be debated at the party’s annual convention, taking place this weekend in Victoria. It comes seven months after B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth dismissed a call to decriminalize possession by the province’s top doctor, citing a reluctance to direct local police forces.

“I think people in the field are desperate, and this is a way to send a very strong message from a multisectoral group of NDP supporters that this government is really falling down at this point on this issue,” said Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

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“It’s a major message to the government. People are really fed up.”

The resolution urges the B.C. government to work with the Solicitor-General to decriminalize personal possession of all illicit drugs by amending the Police Act to limit enforcement; setting policing priorities on harm reduction and connections to treatment; and instructing RCMP and municipal forces to limit police presence near overdose prevention and treatment sites unless called upon.

It also asks government to fund the distribution of a safer supply of drugs, and for relevant ministries to remove barriers to opioid substitution therapies and work with relevant partners to allow for take-home doses of certain medications that currently must be ingested at a pharmacy.

The BC Federation of Labour, one of the parties behind the resolution, said in a statement it "supports the calls put forward by front-line workers, people who use drugs, the organizations they have created and stewarded, and the community of harm reduction activists and advocates, who have clearly stated and demonstrated that a safe supply of drugs is needed.

"Creating a safe supply of drugs will reduce overdoses and recognize the dignity and humanity of people who use drugs.”

Proponents of decriminalization say that punitive-based drug policy magnifies harms associated with substance use. Stigma against people who use drugs can drive them underground, leading to an increase in communicable disease transmission, overdose risk and death. Arrests for low-level drug offences can also disrupt treatment, negatively affect employment and housing and fuel a cycle of criminal recidivism.

Decriminalization is different from legalization; manufacturing and trafficking illicit drugs would remain illegal.

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In April, provincial health officer Bonnie Henry called for the province to decriminalize people who use drugs, issuing a report that outlined two options.

In the first, Mr. Farnworth could use powers under the provincial Police Act to prioritize harm-reduction approaches. A person caught with a small amount of illicit drugs could be linked to health and social services, and perhaps face an administrative penalty rather than a criminal charge and incarceration.

In the second option, the Police Act could be amended to include a provision that prevents any member of a police force in B.C. from expending resources on the enforcement of simple possession offences.

Mr. Farnworth dismissed the idea within a few hours of the report’s release.

“We don’t believe that one province can go it alone, and the reality is that these substances, controlled substances, fall under federal jurisdiction,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for me as minister to be directing police in how they conduct their operations.”

A statement issued Thursday by the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, on behalf of the B.C. government, said that drug possession is still a federal matter and that local police forces are working within current parameters “to reduce fear of reporting overdoses and connect people with care.”

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“Pilots underway with police in Vancouver, Abbotsford and Vernon are referring people to treatment instead of the criminal justice system,” the statement said. “In Abbotsford alone, hundreds of people have been connected to care for substance use challenges, along with assistance with other health and housing needs.”

More than 4,700 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. since 2016.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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