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Protesters rally in Vancouver on Nov. 3 to support safe-supply drugs and denounce the recent arrest of the founders of the Drug User Liberation Front.Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press

Guy Felicella was 12 years old when he first tried drugs – sharing a joint with some buddies. Marijuana quickly led to LSD. LSD led to cocaine, which led to heroin. Harder drugs led to a harder life. He became involved with gangs. His rap sheet would eventually reflect the unrelenting hold narcotics had on him, one that thwarted many attempts to leave drugs behind.

His criminal record includes 55 convictions, all drug-related, all for possession for the purpose of selling or simply consuming himself. Including the time he spent in juvenile detention centres, Mr. Felicella figures he has spent seven to eight years of his life in jails of one sort or another.

“They would take you to jail, they would take your money, you’d stay in there for one month, two months, a year,” he recently recalled. “The time for things like simple possession would increase just because of the number of times I was arrested. I wasn’t doing anything. I just had drugs on me.”

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Guy Felicella, shown in Surrey in 2021, says drug prohibition puts users like him in an 'impossible position.'Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Felicella would inevitably be released and told he couldn’t go into certain areas – known as red zones – of Vancouver. One time he was freed upon condition he not visit an area of the Downtown Eastside where the single occupancy hotel in which he lived was located. He had to agree to not use drugs again, knowing that was never going to happen.

“It was ridiculous,” Mr. Felicella told me. “It was an absolute failure to recognize the harm this was doing. It was a failure to recognize the impossible position that prohibition and the war on drugs puts addicts in. Try getting your life together when you’re released from jail, now with a criminal record. Meanwhile, you’re still an addict, you don’t have a place to live. You don’t have a job. How did anyone expect the drug crisis was going to improve with that scenario playing out every day in B.C. and across the country?”

Now sober, Mr. Felicella has emerged as an impassioned, outspoken advocate of the three-year decriminalization experiment in B.C. that began at the end of January. Not surprisingly, it quickly became laden with controversy and the object of an ideological war pitting progressive-minded politicians and public-health experts on one side and conservatives and some public-safety officials on the other.

What is clear in this often muddy, ugly debate and the hardening positions on both sides of it, is that the country’s drug crisis is arguably the greatest social ill we confront at this time. In turn, it represents an intractable public policy dilemma, for which a solution faces long odds amid the rancour and division enveloping any conversation about it.

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In 2008, a man in Vancouver's Crab Park looks out at crosses representing the lives saved by Insite, the city's pioneering safe injection site.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Calls for decriminalization in B.C. span decades, as the province, and more specifically the city of Vancouver, has long struggled with a drug problem. Vancouver was the first Canadian city to open a supervised injection site in 2003. Kash Heed, former B.C. solicitor-general and chief of the West Vancouver police, was among the first giving voice to the idea that penalizing drug addiction through incarceration was a losing strategy. The problem, he believed, needed to be solved outside law enforcement. In 2001, while a member of the drug unit of the Vancouver Police Department, he testified before a Canadian Senate hearing on illicit drugs that throwing people in jail for cannabis use was counterproductive. “The removal of criminal sanctions should be given serious consideration by the federal government in the near future,” he said.

In 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police made headlines by endorsing decriminalization, although it was not a position with which all law enforcement officials were comfortable.

Ultimately, it was Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart who decided decriminalization was an essential piece of any overarching strategy to reduce the number of people dying from drug overdoses in his city and province more broadly, which in 2023 remains six a day on average.

In his recent book, Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in British Columbia, Mr. Stewart claims that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told him on two occasions he would never approve decriminalization. Canada wasn’t ready for it.

Everything changed, however, when Patty Hajdu was named federal health minister in November, 2019.

According to Mr. Stewart, she supported the decriminalization initiative and told the mayor if he requested a federal exemption under the country’s drug laws to decriminalize personal possession of all illicit substances within city boundaries, she would make it happen.

According to Mr. Stewart, then-NDP premier John Horgan was also against the idea. However, when it appeared that Vancouver was going to get its exemption, the NDP government changed its view and decided to seek a provincewide exclusion on a trial basis.

The trial, which began on Jan. 31, allows someone to carry 2.5 grams of any drugs for personal use without fear of being arrested.

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A drug-user advocate weighs drugs on a scale at a Downtown Eastside operation, run out of a trailer, to test products for safety.Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters

The voices of those advocating in favour of decriminalization have only grown louder over the years. The biggest reason is the most obvious: The war on drugs – throwing people in jail for possession of narcotics – has failed miserably as a deterrent. Not just in the U.S., but here, too.

Public health care officials have been proclaiming for some time that you can’t treat addiction as a crime. And incarcerating people for possessing drugs that they and they alone plan to use has been, and continues to be, a losing strategy.

In his book Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis, University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin outlines several flaws with criminalizing people for drug use. The first is you’re punishing people for having a substance-use disorder. We don’t throw alcoholics in jail for possessing booze. Why should drugs be different? If anything, booze is a glittering example of how prohibition is a failed tactic. Been there, tried that. Didn’t work.

Another problem Prof. Perrin points to is that drug criminalization fuels stigma. That, in turn, makes people feel ashamed, which makes them less likely to seek help, and more likely to use drugs alone. When that happens, and something goes awry, like an overdose, there is no one around to help. Consequently, more people die as a result. Prof. Perrin says drug criminalization also creates barriers to rehabilitation. Throwing people in jail for drug possession almost ensures the opposite happens.

“We need to get people in recovery and if you criminalize then you’re basically cutting the opportunity for any of those people to recover,” Dr. Mark Tyndall, professor of public health at UBC, says in Overdose. “If you make it illegal, if you’re 30 years old with no teeth and a criminal record, try reintegrating into society. We’re really damaging people by thinking we’re doing them a favour by being tough on drugs and being a big deterrent. We’ve really, really destroyed a lot of people’s lives.”

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Mark Tyndall demonstrates an ATM-style machine in the Downtown Eastside for dispensing approved hydromorphone pills.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Those who have spent much of their adult lives thinking about these matters are in almost universal agreement that decriminalization is only one element in a suite of measures needed to make inroads in our country’s opioid emergency. But it is a vital one.

Dr. Susan Boyd, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and the author of Heroin: An Illustrated History, is one of the country’s leading experts on drug policy. She told me in an e-mail exchange: “Our drug laws are the product of colonialism, Christian white supremacy, systemic racism and class and gender discrimination. And that continues today, evidenced by who is arrested for drug possession in Canada. Due to over-policing and racial injustice, Indigenous and Black people in Canada are over-represented for drug possession arrests. It is not because they use more criminalized drugs.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s long-time Provincial Health Officer and arguably the most celebrated chief public health officer in the country, has long favoured decriminalization. She has seen what jail has done to reduce the drug problem in B.C., and Canada: nothing.

“We have seen this play out for years, decades, this cycle of getting arrested,” Dr. Henry told me. “These people eventually get released under conditions they can’t meet, like don’t do drugs. Then they get re-arrested. Eventually, they get into this cycle of criminality they can’t get out of.”

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An officer at Lisbon's police headquarters demonstrates bricks of cocaine seized by Portuguese authorities this past May in banana boxes from Latin America. Portugal decriminalized the personal use and possession of illicit drugs in 2001.PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images

Any talk about decriminalization inevitably invokes references to Portugal, which is routinely held up as the exemplar of how to handle a drug crisis. It decriminalized drugs in 2001, invoking a law that viewed the drug user as a patient and not a criminal. It would take two decades before any jurisdiction in North America would be brave enough to bring in such a law. Oregon did just that in 2020 when voters passed Measure 110, which eliminated criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of hard drugs for personal use. Viewed as groundbreaking at the time, early results have not been positive and have certainly tainted the public’s view of the initiative. Its early failures have been weaponized by conservative politicians and commentators in the U.S. and Canada, who view punishment as a crucial tool in stomping out drug use.

So, what hasn’t worked in Oregon, and more specifically, its biggest city, Portland? Almost everything. Not that long ago, Portland was being heralded as a progressive, urban success story, a highly livable city known for its hipsters and craft breweries. Its quirkiness was the basis for the television show Portlandia. It was one of the earliest states to legalize marijuana, which made it a natural candidate for decriminalization.

Under the initiative, anyone caught with up to one gram of heroin or methamphetamine or 40 oxycodone pills may be given a $100 citation, which can be dismissed if the person calls a treatment referral hotline. Sounds good in theory. According to a story in The Atlantic published in July, however, of 5,299 drug possession cases filed in the state’s circuit courts since Measure 110 went into effect, 3,381 resulted in the recipient failing to either pay the fine or appear in court. A state audit also found that during its first 15 months in operation, the treatment-referral hotline received just 119 calls “at a cost to the state of $7,000 per call.” On top of that, “in the two years after the law took effect [in 2021], the number of annual overdoses in the state rose by 61 per cent, compared with a 13-per-cent increase nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Open drug use has proliferated in Portland, especially in its downtown core. Earlier this year, police shut down what had become an open-air drug market in a three-block radius that once was a thriving retail area. Residents are blaming Measure 110 for a rise in crime, homelessness and drug addiction and are calling for a return to criminal penalties. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a prominent Democrat, says the city’s substance-abuse problems “have exploded to deadly and disastrous proportions.” And those who want to seek help face a lack of treatment and recovery beds. There is not nearly the quantity of services needed to meet the needs of all those suffering from drug problems.

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A person smokes fentanyl in Portland this past May. Oregonians are allowed small amounts of hard drugs for personal use.Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP

Which brings us back to B.C. The province’s decriminalization project hasn’t had nearly as much time as Oregon’s to prove itself, yet is already demonstrating some of the same early growing pains.

Some in the public are upset that drug use in their communities has seemingly increased since decriminalization became a reality. That is perhaps not surprising given that part of the rationale for the move was to bring drug use “out of the shadows” where people, stigmatized by society, felt they needed to go to use. This phenomenon worried public-health officials who believed it was contributing to overdose deaths because users were not with others who could help them if they got in trouble. So if more people are now using drugs in the open it’s not a shock the public thinks drug use is on the rise.

It didn’t take long for mayors in many communities to demand changes to the decriminalization law to stop drug users from consuming in places frequented by children and families, such as beaches and community centres. Nelson Mayor Janice Morrison was one of those pleading with the province to take some kind of action.

“Sometimes there are unintended consequences to policies that have the best of intentions,” Ms. Morrison told me. “And I think decriminalization is one of those. Look, addiction is not a crime, it’s a health issue. To think you’re going to punish someone for their addiction is a bit foolish. And the reality is, our police chief told me they hadn’t arrested anyone for possession in quite some time anyway. So there was de facto decriminalization in place already. But we do need to control where people use. That’s all I’m saying.”

Ms. Morrison said open drug use became a problem in her city after decriminalization was ushered in. It particularly played out at a recreation centre in the middle of town frequented by children and seniors. The recessed doorways became attractive spots for addicts to smoke and shoot up drugs, especially in inclement weather. She was among several mayors demanding that the NDP government bring in legislation that prohibited people from using near public spaces frequented by a broad swath of the public. But the city didn’t wait for the government to respond, passing a bylaw in early September banning drug use in 12 public areas, including five parks.

Still, the government heard the mayors and on Oct. 5 tabled legislation prohibiting open drug use in recreation spaces, business doorways, beaches, sports fields, libraries and bus stops, among other places. If someone resists, they can be arrested and their drugs seized. So far, it hasn’t had a notable impact in places such as the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, where people are using drugs in many of the areas that are now no-go zones under the legislation.

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Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is one of the more vocal opponents of B.C.'s decriminalization plan.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Certainly, the problems some communities have encountered have created the broader impression that decriminalization has led to the proliferation of drug use. While hard data confirming that have not yet emerged, it hasn’t stopped politicians such as federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre from characterizing Vancouver as a drug-fuelled, dystopian hellscape. He says he will end decriminalization and safe supply if elected. The centre-right BC United Party has already come out and said it would end decriminalization if it comes to power.

Needless to say, the negative rhetoric around decriminalization has infuriated some of its biggest proponents. Dr. Henry told me that people are conflating an increase in homelessness, an increase in precarious housing situation, an increase in food insecurity with decriminalization and public-safety issues. “There is a whole public-safety narrative being fed by some right-wing politicians like Pierre Poilievre who are conflating taking away criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with public safety. It’s now become a big P political issue.”

There have been other problems with decriminalization. The province revealed in September it would not be publishing a monthly dashboard of information that would allow the public to see how decriminalization is working. That decision to backtrack on promised transparency hardly helped foster confidence in the decriminalization trial.

Instead of arresting people for small amounts of drugs, police in B.C. are supposed to hand drug users wallet-sized health service referral cards that list phone numbers for treatment. However, there is no data available on how many have been handed out or how many people have phoned the numbers on the card seeking treatment since decriminalization began.

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There is no data on how often B.C. police forces hand out referral cards to drug users, as they are required to do in lieu of arrests.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

These problems seem almost trivial, however, compared with two things I believe are undermining decriminalization the most: the lack of treatment and recovery beds in the province and the pitiable uptake of safe drugs being made available by the state.

If one of the central tenets of decriminalization is that it helps eliminate some of the disincentives to seeking help, the reality is, if you want help, it often takes months to get it, certainly if you’re hoping to land a spot in a recovery centre that is publicly funded. Ms. Morrison, the Nelson mayor, said there are only five or six detox beds available for those wanting to get clean. But anyone seeking access to one has to travel to Castlegar – 44 kilometres away. After that there are none in the southeast part of the province. For full-on treatment and recovery, a person has to leave that area of the province altogether, Ms. Morrison told me.

There are other issues within the treatment and recovery regime itself. Namely, many programs insist on abstinence, which is often not realistic or in a patient’s best interests.

“There is a false dichotomy that recovery equals abstinence,” Dr. Henry told me. “We need to understand recovery is a process and can mean different things.”

The province’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, agrees. She believes the treatment industry needs to be regulated. In many cases it’s very expensive and beyond many people’s means. It’s also dominated by programs that insist on complete abstinence, which can often be dangerous to a person’s health.

In an op-ed in published in The Globe and Mail in June, Jill Diamond, who lost a brother to a drug overdose, took aim at the inadequacy of a proper treatment model in the province. She quoted Dr. Seonaid Nolan, head of Providence Health Care’s Division of Addiction: “Gaps that currently exist between prevention, treatment and recovery mean that people are not able to access supports they need, when and where they need them. It’s a fragmented and siloed system and access to comprehensive, evidence-based and co-ordinated substance-use care can be a challenge.”

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Surrey police show evidence bags of fentanyl, which can produce deadly overdoses in contaminated drugs.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The other issue is safe supply. The No. 1 reason so many people are dying from a drug overdose in B.C. is because of a toxic drug supply. People are buying street product laced with deadly substances such as fentanyl. Meantime, less than 5 per cent of drug users in the province are taking advantage of safer options available from some physicians, according to the chief coroner.

“We have a problem because these alternatives have to be prescribed and a lot of doctors are reluctant to get involved because of liability concerns. What if someone dies from something they gave them?” Ms. Lapointe told me. “There is a lot of trepidation.”

It goes beyond that though.

Some doctors are concerned that pharmaceutical-grade drug alternatives such as hydromorphone that are handed out in safe-supply programs are being sold on the street. Recently, a group of these physicians signed a letter calling on the federal government to ensure safe-supply drugs are dispensed and taken in front of a supervising doctor or not at all.

“Decriminalization is critical,” Ms. Lapointe told me, “but there are other pieces [treatment/prevention and safe supply] that are just as critical if not more so. People shouldn’t look at decriminalization as something that is going to solve our drug crisis on its own. It’s a piece.” Yet, Ms. Lapointe is discovering it’s not that easy, especially in an environment in which B.C.’s NDP government appears increasingly uneasy about further liberalizing drug treatment policy in the province.

In November, the government shot down a recommendation by a panel of experts assembled by the chief coroner to offer at-risk drug users a supply of regulated (uncontaminated) opioids and stimulants without a prescription. Very quickly, Jennifer Whiteside, minister of mental health and addictions, issued a statement that non-prescription models for the delivery of pharmaceutical alternatives were not under consideration by the government.

What this says about the government’s resolve to give decriminalization and more aggressive drug strategies a try is difficult to say. But clearly public unease with the experiment appears to be weighing on it.

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Guy Felicella is worried that the current conversation about public drug use in B.C. is reviving old stigmas.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Guy Felicella will never be dissuaded about the merits of decriminalization as an important tool in the fight against drug-use disorder.

Mr. Felicella was in and out of treatment for his drug addiction nearly a dozen times. As he likes to say, he was good at getting clean, he just wasn’t great at staying clean. His life changed on Feb. 18, 2013, when he went to a supervised injection site in the Downtown Eastside and overdosed. He was clinically dead for seven minutes before he was revived by a nurse.

He awoke and began sobbing. “I don’t want to die,” he cried. He was 42. He would never touch drugs again.

Today, Mr. Felicella, 54, works for the BC Centre on Substance Use and the Vancouver Coastal Health Regional Addiction program. He is married with three children. He frequently speaks to high-school students on his life journey. His opinions on the drug crisis are highly valued.

He doesn’t like the conversation that has sprung up around drug users consuming in public places. He’s worried that they are being stigmatized all over again. One thing he’s never heard a drug user say is, “Let’s go to the beach or splash park so we can use our drugs around kids and families.”

People consume drugs outside often because that’s the only place they have to go. They have no home. There are no supervised consumption sites in many of the towns in which they live. If people are interested in helping these folks, they should be advocating for safe places for these people to go, Mr. Felicella told me.

“Solving the drug crisis is very complicated,” he said. “It is going to take a gargantuan effort to really make inroads. Decriminalization is a start down that road but we, as a society, have a long, long way to go if we expect the situation to improve.

“I think we have to ask people: Are you really interested in a solution to the problem or do you just not want to have to see it?”

Drugs in Canada: More from The Globe and Mail

Early this year, in the first week of B.C.’s decriminalization policy, Garth Mullins from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users joined The Decibel to explain what it involved and who it could affect. Subscribe for more episodes.

Editorial: B.C. finds the limits of policies to combat overdoses

S. Monty Ghosh: Is Alberta ready for Portuguese-style decriminalization?

Vincent Lam: Solving the opioid crisis can’t be a quick fix

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