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B.C. moves forward on drug decriminalization

By Richmond Sentinel

Published 10:24 PDT, Wed April 14, 2021

As British Columbia marks five years since declaring the overdose crisis a public health emergency, its unprecedented toll continues to affect people in every part of the province.

Taking action that is aligned with calls from police chiefs and public health officials, the province is moving forward with vital measures to combat stigma and turn the tide on this crisis. B.C. will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in the province to remove the shame that often prevents people from reaching out for life-saving help.

"Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone," said Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson. "Through province-wide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment.

The overdose crisis has impacted every community in B.C., and a provincewide exemption must consider the circumstances unique to urban, rural and remote communities. Key issues for consideration are defining simple possession, determining allowable drug amounts and ensuring the readiness of law enforcement, health and social services to support decriminalization.

Consultation with Indigenous partners, peers, law enforcement, municipalities and public health officials is being planned.

Decriminalization is one additional tool in B.C.'s accelerated overdose response plan that also includes harm reduction, prevention, treatment and recovery, while building a system of mental health and substance use care.

As a signal of its commitment to the overdose response, the province is also boosting funds to secure recently expanded overdose prevention services for people at high risk of overdose. A new $45-million investment over the next three years will extend and enhance the funding announced in August 2020 to support those services to save more lives.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is having devastating effects on people who use drugs—illicit substances are more toxic and people are struggling with increased isolation," Malcolmson said. "Today, our government is committing to sustain and enhance services in every health authority to prevent overdose deaths and connect people to supports. There's more to come as we continue building the comprehensive system of mental health and addictions care that British Columbians deserve."

This investment will support people who use drugs by enabling health authorities to continue scaling up their regional overdose responses through new and expanded overdose prevention services, including inhalation sites to meet the growing need for this mode of consumption. Health authorities are hiring new registered nurses who can prescribe addictions treatment medications, in addition to social workers and peer support workers for new and existing interdisciplinary outreach teams.

According to the BC Coroners Service, using drugs by inhalation has become the most common mode of consumption implicated in illicit drug toxicity deaths in B.C. The province is expanding access to addiction treatment and recovery services, including $36 million to double youth treatment beds and $13.5 million to increase adult beds throughout B.C.

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