B.C. decriminalization plan won't do much to stop toxic drug deaths, says chief coroner
Critics take issue with low threshold amount, delay in implementation and potential for discrimination
The federal government framed its announcement that possession of small amounts of drugs will be decriminalized in B.C. as a major policy breakthrough, but for those close to the deadly drug crisis, the news has been met with skepticism.
On Tuesday morning, British Columbians heard that Canadians 18 years of age and older will be able to possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA within the province as of Jan. 31 next year.
While many people on the ground in B.C. say it's a step in the right direction, they also had strong words of criticism about the low threshold for the amount of drugs, the long delay before implementation and the continuing potential for racial discrimination.
The skeptics include Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner and a vocal critic of the response to the crisis from all levels of government.
"It's been described as decriminalization. I'm not sure that it is," Lapointe told The Current host Matt Galloway.
The exemption from federal drug laws comes as the result of a request from the B.C. government, which suggested a threshold of up to 4.5 grams of illicit drugs — an amount that many critics already believed was too low. The federal government's threshold nearly cuts that recommendation in half.
"I would have to say, honestly, that this guideline for non-enforcement for small amounts of substances is not going to make a significant difference in the short term," Lapointe said.
She said the threshold is too low to help most drug users or to prevent many deaths caused by B.C.'s tainted illicit drug supply, which has already killed more than 9,400 people since 2016.
"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," Lapointe said.
'Bias can creep through'
She's also worried about racial bias and other prejudices influencing how police officers interpret the new guidelines, especially when it comes to who is stopped to see if their drugs are over the threshold.
"When a police officer has that much discretion, bias can creep through, whether it's conscious or unconscious," she said.
Lapointe said she'll be watching how the province develops training and guidelines for police officers, as well as how Crown prosecutors apply the new rules in their role approving charges.
Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), which was among the organizations consulted by the B.C. government when it applied for decriminalization, said the proposal for a threshold of 4.5 grams was considered an acceptable three-day supply based on extensive research the group had done.
But entrenched drug users often hold multiple drugs and could consume 2.5 grams "for breakfast," so the exemption may not help them much, Mullins said.
Consideration for rural drug users
While the B.C. First Nations Justice Council largely applauded the move, chair Doug White expressed concern that the low threshold seems to have been decided without consideration of drug users in more remote areas, where it's more difficult to replenish supplies on a regular basis.
"Addiction has no geographical boundaries. If we are working toward harm reduction by decriminalization to reduce users' fear and isolation, the needs of those living in remote communities must also be considered," White said in a written statement.
"We hope to see the threshold raised to four grams for personal use as soon as possible."
He also argued that people with criminal records for drug possession should be pardoned and their criminal records expunged.
For former VANDU president Dean Wilson, the low threshold is much less of an issue than the time frame.
"They say this is very urgent, but we're not doing it for seven months. Like, are you kidding me? What does 'urgent' mean?" he said.
He pointed out that with five or six people dying every day as a result of B.C.'s tainted drug supply, another 1,200 people or more could be dead by the time the new structure is in place next year.
Lapointe shared those concerns, and said she also recognized that for many people, any move toward decriminalization may seem scary.
"For decades, we've been told drugs are bad," she said.
That might explain why the plan has been rolled out this way, Lapointe speculated.
"I think the federal government is probably being very cautious because there's probably a bit of a political football," she said.
But she argued that the only way to deal with the immediate issue of people dying from a tainted drug supply is to bring in a regulated safe supply of drugs that is easily available to anyone who needs it.
With files from The Current, Georgie Smyth and The Canadian Press