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B.C. top doctor's drug decriminalization report good first step: advocates

Last Updated Apr 24, 2019 at 3:44 pm PDT

(iStock Photo)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Drug policy groups are applauding the provincial health officer’s call for the decriminalization of all personal drugs, but say it’s just one step to stemming the tide of overdose deaths and drug stigma.

In her report, Stopping the Harm, Dr. Bonnie Henry called on the provincial government to “urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use.”

“We like to see movement,” said Canadian Drug Policy Coalition executive director Donald MacPherson, adding the medical community has long supported decriminalization for simple possession. “Criminalizing the very people we are trying to save from this fentanyl and carfentanyl poisoning crisis makes no sense at all.”

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PIVOT drug lawyer Caitlin Shane says any step to decriminalization is critical, particularly in the absence of changes to federal criminal drug laws.

“We’ve seen resistance from, the federal government to decriminalize simple possession, and what we’re hopefully seeing is the provinces aiming to take this into their own hands and do what is right,” Shane said.

But B.C.’s Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth insists changes suggested by Henry require federal approval.

“It’s not appropriate for me as minister to be directing police in how they conduct their operations. What we need to assure is that people are able to get the help and the treatment that they need. That’s why we’re making the significant investments in mental health, housing and poverty reduction.”

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But Shane insists the province has legal jurisdiction over health and the administration of justice within its borders. “The province does have significant leeway to make legislation and control police forces and efforts to achieve public health.”

Despite their enthusiasm for the report, MacPherson and Shane said the province should take additional steps to cut stigma against drug users and those with addictions.

“We really do need a two-pronged approach where we stop criminalizing people who are using these substances, and, in the context of a public health emergency, we allow them access to a safer supply of substances,” MacPherson said.

PIVOT would like a clear indication from local police across the province that they will not enforce simple possession laws.

-With files from Marcella Bernardo