Commentary: Decriminalization is dead in BC

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      By: Tyson Singh Kelsall ਤੈਸੋਨਂ ਸਿੰਘ & Vince Tao

      On October 5, BC NDP Premier David Eby and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth stood behind a podium to propose new provincial legislation restricting the public consumption of illicit drugs.  

      Contrary to Eby’s insistence that his party remains committed to its signature decriminalization framework, with today’s proposed legislation and a NDP majority likely to pass it, the province’s three-year pilot project is effectively dead in the water.

      What use is decriminalizing the possession of drugs, even at an inappropriate quantity, when consuming those same drugs has been made illegal across the province? 

      By killing decriminalization, only eight months after it came into effect and public resources were poured into its planning, Eby is ensuring that overdose deaths will continue to kill hundreds of people every month in BC.

      If passed, the NDP’s proposed Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act will give police forces around the province broad, yet-to-be-defined enforcement powers and the ability to immediately seize drugs from a person found using in a park, beach, sports field; or if witnessed using within six metres of a storefront, residential building entrance, or public transit, and 15 metres from playgrounds and skate parks.

      Taken all together, it is difficult to imagine any outdoor space in urban areas where consumption would be legal. 

      BC health officials and the Province have long warned that using alone dramatically increases risk of overdose death from a toxic supply.

      With fewer and fewer spaces to use indoors or with supervision, Eby and Farnworth’s Act will force people to use by themselves and in unsafe environments—something we already know produces fatal outcomes, as it did when some housing nonprofit organizations tightened guest restrictions during COVID-19 (without creating safe alternatives with peer supervision).

      From its inception, critics of BC’s “diet decriminalization” predicted that the policy would not be able to curb the devastation of the drug toxicity crisis due to the framework’s low thresholds for possession and its critical lack of safe supply provision.

      Caitlin Shane, a drug policy lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, says that “as nearly seven people die each day in BC from a toxic drug supply, one would think the logical policy move would facilitate safe supply, increase overdose prevention sites, scale up affordable housing…the list goes on.” Shane, who is a member of the core planning table for decriminalization, continues: “Instead, BC has made the entirely political decision to recriminalize people who use drugs—all in the name of unevidenced moral panic.”

      Rather than adapt the pilot project to these criticisms, the BC NDP are proposing to expand police powers to profile and arrest users, as well as decrease the rationale needed for police to seize people’s drugs. This will reverse any potential benefit that decriminalization could have had for people who use drugs.

      Since the public health emergency was declared in 2016, more than 12,200 people have been killed directly by the drug toxicity crisis, and more from associated illicit drug market-related harm.

      While Eby and Farnworth announced their intent to de-legislate decriminalization, and re-criminalize people who use drugs—especially those with nowhere else to use—the province did not mention expanding or starting any overdose prevention initiatives.

      And today, Vancouver’s point–in-time homeless count estimated that there are nearly 5,000 people without housing in Greater Vancouver.

      Samantha Hasler of the Surrey Newton Union of Drug Users argues this legislation will “force people who use drugs and are homeless into a dead end. In Surrey, we only have one safe smoking site and it is very restrictive. Where are people supposed to go? We need safe indoor places and overdose prevention sites opened now.”

      Many of us have responded to dozens, hundreds, and now countless overdoses. We have lost friends, family, colleagues, and community members. Post-traumatic stress has meant long breaks from work—from life itself—and has negatively impacted our mental wellbeing long-term.

      Although BC’s decriminalization project was deeply flawed at the outset, today’s announcement marks a disturbing escalation in what has been a concerted effort to delegitimize harm reduction at a moment when it’s needed most. Although there’s a clear thread connecting prohibition’s origins on these lands to today’s crisis, it feels like another shot has been fired in the war on drugs.

      It is clear now that any illusion of a bipartisan consensus on the necessity of life-saving harm reduction policies and practices—which Vancouver was once proudly at the forefront of internationally—is gone along with the NDP’s decriminalization project.

      Today, both sides of the aisle demonstrated their indifference to mass death. In the face of this deadly abandonment, we must all once again return to the roots of liberatory harm reduction as a social movement—where the commitment to save lives is in the hands of everyday people.

      Vince Tao is a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Tyson Singh Kelsall ਤੈਸੋਨਂ ਸਿੰਘ is a PhD student in Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, and outreach-based social worker in Vancouver’s DTES.