British Columbia

'We don't have a choice': Experts call for the decriminalization and safe supply of drugs

Health experts and addiction specialists are pushing for drugs to be decriminalized to create a safe supply that would save lives. Advocates say the federal election is an opportunity for voters to pressure politicians to make these changes.

Health care and addiction specialists say it is the only way to start saving lives

Two people embrace at a vigil held in Vancouver on the province's overdose crisis. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

People on the front lines of the opioid crisis have long said creating a supply of clean drugs and removing the criminal element will cut down on the number of people dying of overdoses in British Columbia.

Over 4,500 people have died from drug overdoses in B.C. since 2016, the year the province declared a public health emergency, and coroners reports show fentanyl was involved in approximately 85 per cent of those deaths.

As the body count mounts, the calls from health-care workers, addiction specialists and politicians for decriminalization and a safe drug supply are getting louder.

Last month, the B.C. Nurse Practitioner Association and the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, representing thousands of nurses, called on the province to decriminalize drugs. This month, the City of Vancouver released a video calling for a regulated safe supply. On Wednesday, addiction medicine physician Derek Chang published an op-ed calling on Canadians to make decriminalization a federal election issue.

Melissa Nicholson, a clinical nurse educator at Providence Health Care's Urban Health Program, said the overdose prevention site at Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital has had 12,400 visits since it opened in May 2018. She said the opioid epidemic is so bad because of the abundance of contaminated street drugs.

"I think a lot of people would advocate that a regulated drug supply is really what we need to be seeing," she said, adding that frontline workers do not have anything but band-aid tools to help addicts for the time being.

Nicholson said she and her colleagues feel a sense of urgency to make things better and giving addicts access to safe drugs would be a start. 

Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said a safe supply and decriminalization would not only save lives, it would also save tax dollars.

He said if clean drugs were always available and using them was not a crime, addicts would partake in less criminal activity to pay street dealers.

"Spending money on police and jails is very, very expensive and very, very bad for health outcomes," said Mullins. "Spending money on health-care services is more efficient."

Mullins, as an example of a successful system, referenced Portugal, where he said the government decriminalized the possession and use of all drugs and invested in recovery programs. 

The result, he said: addiction rates dropped and Portugal's court system was no longer backed up by drug cases. 

Judy Darcy, B.C.'s minister of of mental health and addictions, told CBC she agrees unsafe drugs are a key issue in the overdose crisis and said the provincial government has improved access to medication-assisted treatment. 

"We have a significantly greater number of people who are now able to access safe prescription medications instead of the toxic drug supply on the street."

But, Darcy said, the decision to decriminalize drugs rests with Ottawa.

There is no shortage of medical experts, advocates and policymakers calling for the decriminalization of drugs in Canada and supplying safe drugs to addicts to reduce overdose deaths. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Chang, who made his case Wednesday in the Vancouver Sun to have decriminalization become a federal election issue, told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition, he felt compelled to speak out as a medical doctor.

"I understand politicians have their different perspectives, but as a physician my perspective is that I need to speak out for my patients, for my community and for social justice."

Chang said there are already a lot of health-care professionals, researchers and policymakers stating their cases to political parties, but the voting public could be more persuasive with a federal election fast approaching.

He said decriminalization is critical to decrease the stigma and voters can show politicians that addiction and death does not discriminate. He believes if voters speak to their candidates about the issue before going to the polls, "politicians will listen and sway."

"Addiction can touch everyone," he said. "[Decriminalization] is not the only solution, but I would say it's a very important first step."

Join The Early Edition's Stephen QuinnCBC Vancouver News at 6's Mike Killeen and Anita Bathe at the Woodwards Courtyard on Saturday, Sept. 7 at noon for Despair, Addiction, Poverty: When is Enough Enough? a free public town hall looking at how overdose deaths, homelessness and mental illness are affecting the Downtown Eastside and communities across B.C.

With files from Tara Henley and On The Coast