A proliferation of available street drugs, and an alarming rising body count, caused British Columbia in 2016 to declare a public health emergency. The province has since spent more than $1 billion (Canadian) on treatment, care, and alternatives — only to experience 11,000 drug deaths, including 2,272 counted in the past year.
During sweeps months, Seattle TV stations have occasionally journeyed north to film addiction on streets of Vancouver’s downtown east side, site of North America’s first supervised “safe” injection center. These television crews no longer need to leave the Emerald City to find such scenes.
With desperation has come daring. On February 1, B.C. became the first province in Canada to decriminalize hard drugs for personal use. The trial decriminalization covers up to 2.5 grams of some deadly stuff, fentanyl, heroin, morphine, and methamphetamines.
The substances remain officially illegal, but those over 18 caught possessing small amounts will not be arrested, charged, or even have their drugs confiscated. They will instead be offered links to health and social services. The new policy is an experiment, for which B.C. has been granted a three-year exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substance Act.
The decriminalization represents “a monumental shift in drug policy that favors fostering trusting and supportive relationships in health and social services over further criminalization,” in words of Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s federal minister for mental health and addiction.
British Columbia has long enjoyed a reputation as Canada’s “lotus land” for its prosperity, physical beauty, benign climate (compared to the rest of the Great White North), and laid-back lifestyle. It is a magnet for immigration, from across the Pacific and from elsewhere in the country, as witness the province’s aggressive new premier, David Eby, who is a Kitchener, Ontario, native.
The province’s leaders like to tout statistics on job growth and tech development, to argue that British Columbia leads Canada. Drug deaths are the dark side, 42.1 per 100,000 in the first six months of 2022; the comparable figure for populous Ontario is 16.9 per 100,000. The TV cameras may focus on the Vancouver’s downtown east side, but the casualty rate is highest in northern British Columbia and among Aboriginal First Nations peoples.
The addiction crisis comports with an uncomfortable truth: “Lotus land” is an increasingly pressured place. The annual Throne Speech, the B.C. government’s equivalent to our State of the Union, warned this week of “economic storms” to come in a possible recession. COVID-19 hit the province hard. Climate change has generated its own storms. Summer wildfires with smoke covering much of the province are becoming “the new normal” in words of former Premier John Horgan. Floods have hit from the lower Fraser Valley to the base of Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies.
Squeezed geographically, Vancouver and the Lower Mainland have become among the most expensive places in North America to live, a cause of rising anxiety for lower and middle-income residents alike. A Royal Bank of Canada report recently found Vancouver with the most unaffordable housing in Canadian history.
The drug crisis, in its various forms, has defied remedy and solution for more than a decade. While illegal, marijuana became the province’s highest value agricultural crop. Bicycle and Asian immigrant gangs competed for control, with gangland-style rub-outs and the innocent death of bystanders jolting a country not used to firearms fatalities.
Legal cannabis has come to Canada largely at the impetus of police chiefs and provincial attorneys general. The persuasive argument, not yet proven, was that legalization would dislodge from the hands of gangs the sale, distribution, and growing.
In a column this week, the Vancouver Sun’s Daphne Braham detailed a list of “firsts” in British Columbia. Three years ago, “Lotus land” was the world’s first jurisdiction to offer free pharmaceutical grade heroin, methamphetamines, and alcohol to addicts by prescription and without any requirement that they go under medical supervision.
It’s the first place in North America to have a government-funded supply of pharmaceutical replacements for illicit drugs and a vending machine that dispenses pharmaceutical grade heroin. It was one of the first places to establish a methadone program and “in the forefront” of making naloxone free and available to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Under Premier Eby, the province is seemingly going in two directions. It is seeking to strengthen enforcement, to keep repeat and violent offenders locked up, while offering services to “help people break the cycle of life in and out of jail” – including new attention to addiction care. “Being compassionate, concerned, and taking action on mental health and addiction issues does not mean that we have to accept repeated criminal behavior or violence,” Eby told a news conference in November.
The province’s opposition (not-very-liberal) Liberal Party has proposed a three-year, $1.5 billion program to “expand free and accessible treatment and recovery options” in words of the Liberals’ leader Kevin Falcon. Both Falcon and Eby have embraced the idea of using involuntary care for addicts who pose a risk of harming themselves and others.
Decriminalization of hard drugs was urged four years ago by British Columbia’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who subsequently directed B.C.’s widely praised COVID-19 response. It has won increasing support across Canada’s political spectrum. “Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life saving support,” said Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s cabinet minister in charge of mental health and addiction.
As well, the province’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe told CBC, “Decriminalization, to my mind, would be if you have a substance for personal use, then it’s for personal use, and the police should not have a role to play in that . . . What you decide to use for your personal needs is your choice.”
In one key respect, however, addicts are not getting “your choice.” Most of the opioids killing British Columbians are laced with fentanyl, in an amount that addicts have no way of knowing. What’s ingested for “personal use” becomes more lethal than heroin.
Another fine piece, Joel. Vancouver and Seattle have long been an underused laboratory for urban policy — cities with similar sizes, histories, economics, climate, geography, but working under fundamentally different political systems. Sometimes we do stuff better, sometimes Canada does it better. But either way, there is much to be learned from our approaches to public policy. I suspect BC’s new strategy will work, but not without painful side effects. Thanks again for keeping your finger on the neighbors’ political pulse.
I think that legalizing hard and otherwise illegal drugs- fentanyl for example – dispensing heroin from a vending machine – is a serious policy mistake.
Some call it an “experiment.” I call it abdication.
And coupling this with a pitch that they will also provide drug rehabilitation?
Give it two years. We shall see.
Will Vancouver BC’s experiment in legalized personal use be as big a debacle as it has been in Oregon, which has seen an 700% increase in overdoses and a 120% increase in overdose deaths? How’s that working out? Advocates for the policy attempt to spin “victory” because, allegedly, thousands of users are not exposed to the criminal justice system. And yet only 91 people, as of November 2022 when the program had been operational for a year and a half, had even called the hotline for information. Far fewer had entered treatment. Seems like there are better results in states that sent people found with drugs to prison.