B.C. harm-reduction groups ask Mike Farnworth to reconsider top health officer's report on overdose deaths

Dr. Bonnie Henry recently issued a detailed plan to reduce fatal overdoses, but her own government quickly dismissed her suggestions

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      An open letter addressed to B.C. minister of public safety and solicitor general Mike Farnworth makes an impassioned plea for the province to take a second look at a recent suggestion that B.C.’s top doctor argues would reduce overdose deaths.

      “Approximately one month ago, you summarily dismissed the provincial health officer’s urgent call to effectively decriminalize illicit drug possession in B.C., within hours of the health officer releasing her report,” it reads.

      “Currently, nearly 100 people die across the province every month of fatal overdose. Rather than meaningfully respond to this crisis with evidence-based drug policy, you cited jurisdictional constraints in order to reject recommendations supporting a harm reduction-based provincial policing priority and legislative amendments to divert police resources away from drug possession enforcement. You maintained that ‘no one province can go it alone’,” the letter continues.

      “We urge you to reconsider.”

      The letter is signed by representatives for nearly two dozen harm-reduction and drug-policy organizations in B.C. plus notable individuals working in those fields. They include Pivot Legal Society, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC), AIDS Vancouver Island Health and Community Services, and Moms Stop the Harm, among others.

      “Your ministry and the province bear responsibility to ensure the health and safety of people who use drugs,” it reads. “People continue to die as a result of a toxic drug supply, and the crisis continues to be exacerbated by the criminal enforcement of low-level drug offences, such as possession for personal use, and lagging health services and supports.”

      On April 24, Dr. Bonnie Henry, a senior government official who’s tasked with improving the overall health of the province, issued a detailed report recommending that B.C. remove criminal penalties for the personal possession of illicit narcotics, including hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl.

      “There is widespread global recognition that the failed ‘war on drugs’ and the resulting criminalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs has not reduced drug use but instead has increased health harms,” the document reads. “Engagement with the criminal justice system exposes non-violent, otherwise law-abiding people to a great deal of harms that they would otherwise not experience.

      “The societal stigma associated with drug use leads many to use drugs alone and hidden, increasing their risk of dying,” it adds.

      In Canada, drug laws are primarily written at federal level. But Henry explains in her report that B.C. could implement de facto decriminalization, and explains the specific legal mechanisms with which it could do so.

      "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," her 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."

      Almost immediately after the B.C. health officer’s document was made public, the province’s solicitor general dismissed its recommendations and said B.C. would not decriminalize drugs.

      “Possessing these substances is still illegal under federal law,” Farnworth said in response to reporters’ questions. “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.

      As the Straight reported in detail on April 26, Farnworth’s stated reasons are not entirely accurate, or debatable at the very least.

      In the June 11 letter to Farnworth, the signatories ask the solicitor general to reconsider his dismissal of Henry’s letter and follow those legal recommendations she describes in her report.

      “Amend the Police Act,” it reads, and “set policing priorities focused on harm reduction.

      “Federal drug prohibition does not preclude the province from taking immediate measures to address the opioid crisis and the harms of drug law enforcement,” the letter emphasizes. “A harm reduction-based provincial policing priority and legislative amendments to divert police resources away from low-level drug law enforcement are actions well within the jurisdiction of the province and your ministry.”

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      Last year there were 1,514 illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C., a record high and more than in any other province or territory in Canada.

      On May 30, Statistics Canada reported that there are now so many people dying after taking drugs in B.C. that the overdose crisis in the one province is primarily responsible for stalling the growth of life expectancy for all of Canada.

      In a June 11 Pivot Legal Society media release, the Vancouver nonprofit argues that decriminalizing drugs would reduce overdose deaths.

      “This continuing drug war policing that targets people who use drugs in our own neighbourhoods and communities is making the overdose crisis worse by pushing people who use drugs into unsafe places, criminalizing and punishing people who need support, and contributing to social stigma,” VANDU board member Hugh Lampkin said quoted there.

      “B.C. cannot claim to take a public health approach to drug use if it continues to support the criminalization of people who use drugs,” added Pivot drug-policy lawyer Caitlin Shane quoted in the release. “De facto decriminalization in B.C. is both possible and necessary.”