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Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry, seen at a news conference on Wednesday, says B.C.'s fight against a worsening opioid crisis would be made easier by moving away from a punitive drug policy.Dirk Meissner/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s top public health officer is urging the province to decriminalize people who use and possess small amounts of illicit drugs in the province, calling it a “fundamental underpinning and necessary next step” in the response to the overdose crisis.

But B.C.’s Public Safety Minister is resisting the proposal, citing federal drug laws and a reluctance to direct the province’s police forces.

Bonnie Henry made her case for decriminalization on Wednesday, releasing a report that provided an overview of the history of Canada’s drug laws and strategies, the harms that prohibitionist policies have caused and a look at alternative approaches in other jurisdictions.

“The criminal justice system exposes non-violent, otherwise law-abiding people to a great deal of harms that they would not otherwise experience,” Dr. Henry wrote. “The societal stigma associated with drug use leads many to use drugs alone and hidden, increasing their risk of dying. B.C. cannot ‘treat’ its way out of this overdose crisis, or ‘arrest’ its way out either.”

Drug policy is a federal mandate, but provinces and municipalities can take steps to de facto decriminalize. Dr. Henry provided two options for B.C. in her report.

In the first, B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General Mike 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.

“The [minister] could then require that policing resources be aligned to this priority and that police services report to the minister on how they are implementing this policy,” Dr. Henry wrote.

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.

“This would essentially prevent members from using police resources, including member time, on investigations, searches, seizures, citations, arrests, and/or detentions that relate solely to actual or alleged violations of simple possession,” Dr. Henry wrote.

These actions are permitted under the federal Constitution Act, which grants provincial legislatures exclusive authority to make laws in relation to the administration of justice, the report says.

But Mr. Farnworth didn’t bite.

“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.”

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.

Keith Ahamad, medical director for the regional addiction program at Vancouver Coastal Health, highlighted the need for massive amounts of funding to create a robust addiction treatment system that people can be linked to.

“To create it will take leadership and major investments by the Ministry of Health. The little bit of funding that has been thrown our way so far – one-time funding by different levels of government – is completely insufficient for us to create the system of care to look after all British Columbians.”

Under decriminalization, which is different from legalization, B.C.’s highly toxic illicit-drug supply would remain unregulated. Parallel initiatives are under way in B.C. to provide users of illicit opioids such as heroin with safer alternatives.

Karen Ward, an artist and drug user contracted to advise the City of Vancouver on drug policy, said it was “remarkable” to see the provincial health officer take such a strong stand on the issue.

“I think there’s an obvious dialogue that needs to be had between public health and public safety, and she’s clearly forcing the issue,” she said. “I think it’s a smart thing to do because we clearly need to have that conversation.”

The federal government remains opposed to the decriminalization of any currently illicit drug.

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