British Columbia

B.C. report calls for decriminalization of illicit drugs to quell opioid epidemic

B.C. Centre for Disease Control releases list of recommendations to prevent overdose deaths.

B.C. Centre for Disease Control releases list of recommendations to prevent overdose deaths

A list of 10 recommendations was developed after stakeholders met to collaborate on ways to quell the province's ongoing and deadly opioid epidemic. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has released 10 recommendations to reduce the number of overdose deaths across B.C., a list that includes the decriminalization of illicit drugs.

More than 100 stakeholders gathered at the B.C. Overdose Action Exchange meeting in June to develop the report, which seeks to take action on the province's opioid epidemic that has claimed an unprecedented 800 lives since January 2017.

"Every month, when the [overdose] numbers come out, people are kind of holding their breath that it might be going down," said Dr. Mark Tyndall, the executive medical director of the BCCDC.

"It is extremely disheartening, especially when you think the most vulnerable people have probably already passed away."

A 'bold' list

This meeting marked the second year in a row stakeholders came together to collaborate on ways to quell the province's opioid epidemic.

"We really didn't think we'd be in the same predicament a year later," he said. "This year, the focus was really on bold, new initiatives."

Chief among the recommendations are a complete reformation of the province's current drug laws. The report suggests that full legalization and regulation of the drug supply is necessary to address deadly contamination.

The report recommends the province should immediately aim towards a goal of complete decriminalization of illegal drugs.

Supplying drug dealers with materials to test for contamination could be an effective tool in regulating the amount of fentanyl on the streets, according to the BCCDC report. (Courtesy Mark Lysyshyn, Vancouver Coastal Health)

Dr. Tyndall says placing extreme penalties on fentanyl dealers does not solve the ongoing demand for illicit drugs. Rather, the report suggests drug dealers should be encouraged to use drug testing programs to monitor potential contamination.

"People faced with the prospect of dying, people faced with the prospect of jail, people faced with the prospect of isolation and social chaos is not enough to dissuade people from their drug use."

Other recommendations include:

  • Support appropriate pain management therapies.
  • Build on the success of overdose prevention sites.
  • Expand and improve addiction treatment.
  • Address structural barriers and upstream factors.
  • Counter stigma against people who use drugs.
  • Create targeted research, surveillance and evaluation initiatives.

Province taking recommendations 'seriously'

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy says the province will use the list of recommendations to inform their upcoming overdose action plan.

"There are many things in the report I think we need to take very seriously ... so that the action plan that we're working on can be well informed from the front line," she said.

Darcy did not explicitly say the NDP government is in support of legalization and decriminalization, given that it's federal jurisdiction.

Tracey Loyer injects hydromorphone at the Providence Health Care Crosstown Clinic in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 6, 2016. The Study to Assess Longed-Term Opioid Medication Effectiveness, or SALOME, found hydromorphone is as effective as a pharmaceutical-grade heroine for people who do not respond to methadone or suboxone. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

However, she says the province is committed to expanding prescription of medical-grade heroin to mitigate the risk of overdose. The treatment is only available at Vancouver's Crosstown Clinic.

"There's the opportunity to expand that program without changes in federal law, and we're looking at how we can do that."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition and CBC's On the Coast