Over the weekend, members of the B.C. NDP adopted a resolution at their annual convention that puts the party at slight odds with British Columbia’s NDP government.
“The B.C. NDP will urge the B.C. government to work with the [B.C.] Solicitor General to immediately decriminalize personal possession of drugs to reduce the stigma of substance-use disorder,” the motion begins. “The B.C. NDP will urge the B.C. government to call on the federal government to change Canada’s drug laws to decriminalize personal possession of drugs.”
That resolution received unanimous support from the B.C. NDP members who gathered in Victoria yesterday (November 24).
Last April, however, B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth stated that neither of those things are going to happen.
“Possessing these substances is still illegal under federal law,” the NDP MLA for Port Coquitlam said. “No provincial action can change that….It's not appropriate for me as minister to be directing police on how they conduct their operations.”
Farnworth made those comments in response to reporters’ questions about a B.C. provincial health officer plan to decriminalize drugs as a means to reduce overdose deaths.
“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,” reads the document drafted by Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“Prohibition-based drug policies have not only failed to reduce supply or demand for illegal drugs, they have impeded public health initiatives to reduce harms related to substance use,” her report continues. “Some people in possession of illegal drugs will not seek out supervised consumption, overdose prevention, or treatment services for fear of being arrested; instead, they will use drugs alone, increasing their risk of dying from a potential overdose. In the context of the toxic street drug supply in B.C., this is being witnessed with alarming frequency.”
In addition to recommending that B.C. decriminalize drugs, the November 24 resolution also suggests that provincial authorities expand access to prescription opioids to see people addicted to drugs minimize their dependence on illicit markets and instead receive a regulated supply via the health-care system.
“The B.C. NDP will urge the B.C. government to work with the [B.C.] Ministry of Health, regional health authorities, drug users and drug-user groups, and community-based organizations to support and provide additional funding for the distribution of safer, legal forms of opioids for those who are at high risk of overdose death,” it reads.
Access to prescription opioids has expanded in B.C. since NDP premier John Horgan assumed office in July 2017. But the provincial government played little role in making that happen. So-called “safe supply” programs that have expanded in recent years are largely thanks to just two health-care professionals: Dr. Christy Sutherland, who pioneered a prescription-hydromorphone program for PHS Community Services Society, and Bobby Milroy, director of the Downtown Eastside’s Pier Health Resource Centre.
For years, critics of the NDP’s response to B.C.’s overdose crisis have argued the province could be doing much more to help people addicted to street opioids gain access to a regulated supply.
According to the B.C. NDP, there were some 700 registered delegates in attendance on Sunday and the resolution, “Safer Supply and Decriminalization,” passed without a single vote against it.
Decriminalization is different from legalization. The former only deals with the demand-side of the drug trade whereas the later addresses both supply and demand.
The form of decriminalization that B.C. has begun to debate would see the province drop criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs. Selling drugs would remain illegal.
The second half of the B.C. NDP’s resolution could be called legalization but is more accurately described as “regulation” or “medicalization”. It would see people who previously purchased unknown substances on the street instead receive pharmaceutical opioids with a prescription from a doctor.
There were 690 illicit-drug overdose deaths in B.C. during the first eight months of 2019. That puts the province on track for 1,035 deaths by the end of the year, down nearly a third from the total number of deaths in 2018 and 2017, but still miles above an annual average of 204 deaths that B.C. experienced each year from 2001 to 2010.
The Vancouver-based Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) described B.C. NDP members’ Sunday vote as “unprecedented and important”.
“The motion was brought forward by at least 10 riding associations and unions calling for life-saving changes to drug laws that currently criminalize substance use and people who use drugs—policies that are contributing to the catastrophic loss of life across British Columbia and Canada more generally,” the CDPC’s release continues.
“The resolution increases the pressure on the provincial government to act immediately and implement necessary reforms to save lives.”