Travis Lupick is a journalist and the author of, most recently, Light Up the Night: America’s Overdose Crisis and the Drug Users Fighting for Survival.
Every Monday, Kennedy Stewart learns the number of people who died in his city after taking drugs during the preceding seven days.
“Yesterday morning, I got the email. Nine people died,” he said at a recent press conference. “The week before that, it was 12, with 200 rescues. The week before that, it was 10. Week, after week, after week. One week, it was my own family member who was among those statistics.”
This is the context for British Columbia’s forthcoming experiment to drop criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl, among other hard drugs, which was announced on Tuesday and is scheduled to begin on Jan. 31, 2023.
It is a decision born out of tragedy, and desperation.
From 2001 to 2010, the annual average for overdose deaths in B.C. was 204. Last year in B.C., there were 2,232 fatal overdoses, an unfathomable 10-fold increase.
In terms of harm reduction, British Columbia has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the overdose crisis. Since it declared a public health emergency in 2016, it has flooded the streets with the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, increased the number of supervised consumption sites in the province from one to more than 20, and expanded access to prescription heroin as a substitute for dangerous street drugs.
It looked like progress was being made. After six consecutive years of growth, deaths declined in 2019. Then the pandemic hit, exacerbating mental health issues and forcing people to isolate, which contradicts the number one rule of hard drugs: never use alone. In 2020, B.C. overdose deaths resumed their climb.
This is why B.C. applied for a Section 56 exception from Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, why Ottawa agreed to grant it and why critics are wrong to oppose the measure. Because we need to do something – anything – to stop or even slow a resurgence of overdose deaths.
It is also why advocates for drug policy reform are misguided in dismissing the measure as too little, too late.
There were a projected 7,157 opioid-related deaths across Canada in 2021 (based on data from the first nine months), up from 6,500 the previous year and 3,669 in 2019. A realistic assessment concludes this is the best that politics will likely allow. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is breaking an oft-repeated pledge to not decriminalize drugs. And polls show the country is divided on the issue, almost down the middle.
To be clear, the measure does fall short. Far short.
A police officer cannot arrest someone for possessing drugs, or even take them away, but only if a cumulative amount of heroin, fentanyl (and analogs), cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA does not exceed 2.5 grams. For people with serious habits, this is not a large amount. It also ignores that many impoverished users often sell small amounts of drugs to friends and acquaintances. They’re not really “dealing,” but moving just enough to cover their habits. What the 2.5-gram limit may do is, allow recreational users to walk free – as they already usually do – and leave marginalized people (so often Indigenous or people of colour) to suffer the same levels of persecution and police harassment they always have.
In addition, decriminalization only deals with the demand side of the drug market. While groundbreaking for Canada, it will not solve the fentanyl problem. Until hard drugs are regulated, users will not know what it is that they are putting into their bodies, and many will continue to die as a result.
What decriminalization will do, is begin to bring people out of the shadows cast by prohibition. In Canada, if you use hard drugs, you are, by legal definition, a criminal, which makes it tough to ask for help with an addiction. Beginning next year in B.C., at least if you are holding less than 2.5 grams, you can begin to feel like we as a society are finally doing what we have falsely claimed we have done for decades: treat addiction as the health care issue it is. This will not end the overdose crisis, but it will save lives.
The war on drugs has long been an exceptionally powerful force in law enforcement, politics, and culture. Advocates for reform should not condemn the step B.C. is taking too loudly, because it is historic, and, as excruciatingly frustrating as this might be, it is what is politically tenable at this time. Opponents should give this experiment a chance because, as Mr. Stewart has said, there is no one who has still not been affected by the overdose crisis. It is past time to try something new.
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