Earlier this week (April 25), B.C.’s top health official unveiled a radical yet pragmatic plan for the province to eliminate criminal penalties for drug possession. But her government says it won't use it.
The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, proposed that B.C. use the Police Act to formally instruct police departments and RCMP detachments to deprioritize charging people for possession to a point where federal laws prohibiting drug use are effectively no longer enforced.
Henry argued this would help reduce stigma associated with drug use, which would encourage people who struggle with an addiction to seek treatment. That, she maintained, would reduce overdose deaths.
Two hours later, another arm of the B.C. government, the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, made clear it’s not going to happen.
“Possessing these substances is still illegal under federal law,” Mike Farnworth said in response to reporters’ questions about Henry’s report. “No provincial action can change that. And as is the case with cannabis, no one province can go it alone.
"It's not appropriate for me as minister to be directing police on how they conduct their operations,” the NDP MLA for Port Coquitlam added.
Two out of three of those statements are incorrect.
In Canada, possession is prohibited under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which, Farnworth noted accurately, exists at the federal level and remains in effect.
But, as with cannabis, local jurisdictions can “go it alone”.
Vancouver essentially decriminalized cannabis in the early 2010s, long before the federal government legalized the drug in October 2018. How? The VPD decided that cannabis possession was no longer a “policing priority,” just like Henry has suggested the province do with other drugs. (In 2015, the city went even further, adopting bylaws that regulate storefront cannabis sales.)
Farnworth’s third claim similarly fails to hold up.
It is “appropriate” for the public safety minister to be “directing police on how they conduct their operations”.
That’s a big part of what a public safety minister does.
In so many words, a responsibility to set policing priorities is even written into the mandate letter that Farnworth received when the premier appointed him in July 2017.
There, Premier John Horgan instructs Farnworth to work with local police departments to “take action on gang and gun violence” and “reduce the numbers of Aboriginal people involved in the justice system”.
Well, there are a lot of Indigenous people who are involved in B.C.’s justice system only because of police officers’ enforcement of drug-possession laws. And the same way that Farnworth’s mandate letter instructs him to set police officers’ priorities, he could similarly work with local detachments to deprioritize other transgressions.
In addition, in his response to reporters’ questions, Farnworth failed to address the provincial health officer’s specific recommendation for decriminalization to occur via an amendment to the B.C. Police Act.
Henry suggested a legislative change. And she included in her report the legal provisions that authorize MLAs to make the changes she is suggesting.
"These actions are permitted under Section 92(14) of the Constitution Act, whereby provincial legislatures have exclusive authority to make laws in relation to the administration of justice, including responsibility over law enforcement (such as enforcement of federal criminal law) in the province," the report reads. "Changes to policy or regulation under the Police Act would fall within the constitutional enacting powers of the Province, specifically the powers to create, implement, and amend legislation regarding the administration of justice and the health of people in B.C."
It would not only be "appropriate" for Farnworth to act on Henry's report; rather, to do so ranks among his responsibilities.
As Farnworth spoke with journalists in downtown Vancouver, Canada’s health minister, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, happened to be doing the same just a few blocks way. She similarly expressed opposition to the B.C. health officer's plan.
“Decriminalization alone is not going to be the silver bullet solution because we recognize that the tainted drug supply is really the issue at this point in time,” Petitpas Taylor said.
She emphasized that her Liberal government is working to make regulated opioids more widely available via the country’s health-care system.
"We want to make sure...we treat this as a public health issue and not a criminal one," Petitpas Taylor said as she repeated the government's position it will not drop criminal penalties for personal possession.
There were 1,510 fatal overdoses in B.C. in 2018, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. That compares to 333 deaths five years earlier, in 2013. The synthetic-opioid fentanyl was associated with 87 percent of 2018 deaths, up from 15 percent five years earlier.
Across Canada, opioids kill approximately 4,000 people every year.
As the country’s overdose crisis drags on, a growing number of policymakers have said it is time for Canada to at least begin a national debate about decriminalization. They include NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, former B.C. health minister Terry Lake, former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, Liberal MP Hedy Fry, and B.C. minister of mental health addiction Judy Darcy, among others.
Today Petitpas Taylor’s predecessor, former Canadian health minister Jane Philpott, joined them, giving Henry’s plan a warmer reception.
“International evidence (esp Switzerland & Portugal) is clear: We need a public health approach to drug policy,” Philpott wrote on social media alongside a link to a Globe and Mail editorial in support of the decriminalization proposal. “More than 10,000 Canadians have died from opioid overdoses since 2016. It's well past time to follow the evidence.”