What have we learned from decrim?

With 10 months of decriminalization behind us, experts weigh in.

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      Since illicit drugs were decriminalized in BC at the end of January 2023, the province has seen significantly fewer simple drug possession charges. But advocates worry that new anti-drug use legislation is taking a step backwards.

      Decriminalization—which means that individuals carrying 2.5 grams or less of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA for personal use cannot be charged or arrested—is a good starting point, experts say, and there are numbers to prove it.

      “There’s been a 76 per cent reduction in possession charges,” says Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and a representative of BC’s Decriminalization Core Planning Table. “Thousands of us didn’t have the cuffs slapped on in the last year. That’s fantastic.”

      BC’s decriminalization pilot aims to reduce stigma around drug use and addiction, making it easier for people to reach out and be better connected to care, says Jennifer Whiteside, the Province’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.

      “Early data is promising,” she says, “suggesting that decriminalization is working as intended.”

      Despite fewer simple possession charges, drug reform activists like Dana Larsen are worried about what decriminalization doesn’t address: the toxic drug supply.

      “It’s a good step, but the idea that decriminalization is going to stop drug poisoning is wrong,” he says. Larsen is concerned that decriminalization is being sold as a sweeping solution; it’s also often confused with legalization.

      Decriminalization removes criminal sanctions for carrying a specific amount of an illicit substance, though buying and selling it remains prohibited by law. Legalization, meanwhile, makes a once-banned substance regulated under federal law, meaning it is legal to buy and use.

      The Province has made little effort to educate the public about decriminalization, Mullins says. The government is consistently buckling to backlash, he adds—which has, among other things, resulted in a new anti-drug use law. Passed on Nov. 8, Bill 34 will prohibit the public use of illicit drugs and allow police officers to approach individuals perceived as high or using.

      Garth Mullins, long-time drug activist and host of Crackdown podcast, says there has been a big decrease in arrests for possession across the province this year.
      Jon Healy

      Support networks like the Harm Reduction Nurses Association (HRNA) say the law puts the health and safety of users at risk by promoting isolated and hidden use (which can lead to more overdoses), specifically targeting homeless and Indigenous populations. The HRNA has since filed a civil claim against the Province and attorney general, citing the new law—which has yet to come into effect—as unconstitutional and violating users’ charter rights.

      “There’s no evidence that more people are using in public because of decriminalization,” Mullins says. “If you don’t want people using drugs in public, then it’s time for us to be building more [overdose prevention sites] and housing.”

      Bill 34 will force people to use drugs in hiding, Mullins says—“as if we’re monsters. As if this sight of us alone is some kind of harm to a family. And this is not true.”

      Brittany Graham, VANDU’s executive director, says the new legislation will acutely impact homeless individuals.

      “It is quite similar to discrimination,” she explains. “If we keep telling people in parks that they have to move along, they’re going to get further and further away from actually being with people who they know [and] who understand overdoses.”

      Since decriminalization, Graham says she has actually seen an increase in police presence in neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside. However, she attributes this to other municipal policies (such as Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim adding 100 officers to the Vancouver Police Department), not to decriminalization.

      Decriminalization is not a silver bullet, she says, but it is a necessary first step—especially for future regulation and safe supply.

      To expand these policies, decriminalization and substance use must be treated as a social and health issue, not a criminal justice issue, says Dr. Eugenia Oviedo-Joekes, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and a Canada Research Chair for public health approaches to addictions.

      “Once we do not treat people that use substances as criminals,” she says, “before even thinking of using drugs, they might feel trust in the system to ask questions.” Regulating a safe supply, she adds, means that providers can offer compassionate and evidence-based care.

      Regulation would also support business owners like Larsen, who lost around $100,000 in product after police raided his three mushroom dispensaries (psilocybin is not included in the decriminalization exemption, though police are unlikely to charge for possession of it) in early November.

      “We use our revenue to fund the Get Your Drugs tested program,” Larsen says, “which is the world’s busiest free community street drug-checking service.”

      While programs like Larsen’s are doing their best to fill in the legislative gaps, Mullins says the path forward must include expanding decriminalization—without recriminalization—if we want to see lasting change.

      “There’s not one policy alone that’s going to solve all social issues,” he says. “We’ve got to give this a chance to work before abandoning it.”