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Next Tuesday, the possession of small amounts of drugs – opioids, cocaine, ecstasy, meth – will no longer result in criminal charges in British Columbia. It is a momentous change in the battle against drug overdose deaths but only one part in turning the tide.

The policy goal is to reduce the stigma of drug use, to focus on addiction as a health challenge, not a criminal problem, and ultimately to reduce deaths.

Advocates have for years called for the change, one this space long backed, but political leaders had been staunchly opposed. As overdose deaths rose to frightening heights, a shift started, with support from the likes of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. In 2021, B.C.’s NDP government, which had opposed decriminalization as recently as 2019, asked Ottawa for an exemption to federal drug laws.

That exemption was granted last June and takes effect on Jan. 31, for three years. Drugs will be illegal to sell. But people using them won’t face charges, or even have to hand over any illicit drugs. Instead, police will provide information on health services. Ottawa pledged to monitor the results for reductions in stigma and harms of drug use and increases in access to health and social services. Those kind of data could be useful, but the metrics that matter are fewer overdoses, hospitalizations and deaths.

B.C. is entering territory that few have explored. Two decades ago, Portugal decriminalized drugs. Results there showed a decline in deaths and more people in treatment. But in Oregon, which made the change in 2021, an audit this month found “scant evidence” on the goal of improved access to treatment in the state.

Decriminalization is a necessary, but not sufficient, policy to save lives. It’s necessary because the scale of the problem demands all useful policies be deployed. But the change in the law plays only a supporting role in helping people to the goal of seeking treatment and succeeding in recovery.

That’s the real finish line: more people in an expanded system of addiction treatment and recovery, with more beds and better services. Decriminalization will fail if it is not paired with a push to create more treatment spaces.

Last November, an all-party committee in the B.C. legislature called for a “substantial increase” in treatment beds – and to create a system to collect data “with clearly defined outcomes that can be evaluated and reported on publicly.” Right now, the only readily accessible and regularly updated statistics are the stark tally of how many people have died. Overdose deaths in B.C. and Alberta remain far worse than before the pandemic. In B.C., drugs killed 1,827 people from January to October last year, down less than 1 per cent from the record deaths of 2021. In Alberta, drugs killed 1,443 people from January through November in 2022, down 13 per cent from the peaks of 2021.

Both provinces have expanded treatment in recent years. It is a particular focus of Alberta’s United Conservative Party. A $24-million recovery centre in Red Deer, with 75 beds, is opening soon, and a second will open in Lethbridge in the spring. It’s part of an effort to increase treatment-recovery beds to about 1,900 from about 1,000 five years ago. In B.C., the NDP said it had 3,272 substance-use beds as of last June, up from about 2,900 in 2017. But comparing B.C. and Alberta is not easy. B.C.’s number includes beds for short-term needs such as detox, a precursor to extended rehabilitation.

The difficultly to assess such basic facts is emblematic of a broader health care system flailing in the dark. Neither province offers publicly available answers on key questions such as access to treatment. Are waiting times rising, or falling? What are success rates coming out of treatment? That information should be widely available.

Meanwhile, there’s fighting among policy makers. Alberta gets criticized for neglecting harm reduction policies such as a safer supply of pharmaceutical drugs to avoid toxic street drugs. But Alberta then lashes out at B.C.’s approach. The chief of staff to Premier Danielle Smith this month said B.C. has a “drug legalization agenda” and invests in treatment on a “very small scale.” Such attacks achieve little.

The fact is both provinces have made some good moves but neither has all the answers. A combination of policies is the most complete way forward. Drug decriminalization is just one part of the solution. B.C.’s experiment is valuable but the main goals must be fewer deaths, more people in recovery and transforming lives for the better.

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