PAN Letter to Premier Horgan re: decriminalization of simple possession of drugs

The Honourable John Horgan, M.L.A.
Premier of British Columbia

 

Dear Premier Horgan:

As we near April 14th and the five-year anniversary of the Provincial Medical Health Officer declaring a public health emergency of overdose and overdose deaths, it is a solemn occasion. Over 7000 people have died since the declaration. Last year alone, 1716 people died–the highest number of overdose deaths, ever, in the province. Currently more than 5 people every day are dying.

Clearly, despite the best efforts of drug users, peers, front line workers, and public health what we are doing is not enough. It is time to do more. It is time for bold leadership.

As you are aware, there is overwhelming evidence to highlight the significant harms associated with the criminalization of people who use substances. PAN* and our members continue to call for more immediate and drastic actions by the provincial government to reduce these harms. It is time for the province to fully commit to addressing substance use as the public health emergency it is, rather than a criminal justice issue.

We recognize that some important steps have been taken by yourself and the government. But there are critical policy options and evidence-based solutions that have not been taken up–some of them recommended by British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer. The persistent choice–and to be clear, it is a choice–by this government to not move forward, despite the continuing loss of life, is unacceptable.

 

We urgently call on you to implement the recommendations of Dr. Bonnie Henry contained within her 2019 Report Stopping the Harm.

 

This report provides a clear path for provincial action which would bypass the need for the federal government to make changes to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). The report makes clear that BC’s Solicitor General could adopt a public health and harm reduction approach as a provincial priority to guide law enforcement. This includes the setting of guidelines for police, which prioritizes connecting people to health or social services, instead of criminal charges for simple possession. Secondly, Minister Farnworth could amend B.C.’s Police Act to prevent officers from expending valuable resources to enforce simple possession laws.

Dr. Henry also recommended that the provincial government act quickly. “In the context of the continuing overdose crisis that is affecting families and communities across B.C., the province cannot wait for action at the federal level,” she wrote. “Immediate provincial action is warranted and I recommend that the province of BC urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use.”

That was two years ago. The very same day that Dr. Henry released her report, Minister Farnworth stated he would not move forward with her recommendations. And while Dr. Henry has continued to reiterate her calls for action, in light of the ever-worsening overdose emergency, Minister Farnworth has continued to insist that that this is a matter of federal jurisdiction only.

 

We also call on you to submit a formal application to the federal government for a section 56(1) exemption.

 

Nothing withstanding the failure described above to take reasonable and available action within the scope of provincial jurisdiction, we appreciated your July 2020 open letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling for decriminalization of possession of all illegal drugs for personal use via amendment of the CDSA. In the wake of the fall provincial election, we welcomed the mandate letter you issued to Minister Malcolmson, urging her to work with Minister Farnworth and Minister Eby to fast track the move toward decriminalization–and in the absence of prompt federal action–to develop a “made in BC solution”. Finally, we were encouraged that Minister Malcolmson sent a letter to federal Minister of Health Patty Hajdu on February 3, 2021, to initiate a discussion regarding a section 56(1) exemption, to protect all BC residents from the application of section 4(1) of the CDSA.

Given that you and Minister Malcolmson both publicly support decriminalization and have called on the federal government to act, we urge you to take the critical next step on behalf of the citizens of BC to submit a formal application to the federal Minister of Health for the purposes of obtaining a section 56(1) exemption.

Furthermore, when making the application/request, the province should ensure full decriminalization, not partial. By this we mean that all criminalizing laws, penalties, policies and sanctions must be eliminated – and at the same time, they should not be replaced with new medical sanctions, such as compulsory treatment or medicalized interventions. Nor should we see people being diverted into newly created “drug treatment courts” or similar programs. No new structures, administrative fines or sanctions should be created – all of which would only serve to continue to stigmatize, penalize, punish and isolate people who use drugs and further exacerbate fatal overdoses. We need instead to reduce barriers, to meet people where they are at, and connect them with the health and social services
they need.

To conclude, decriminalization, if done correctly, has the potential to make a real difference in B.C. and stem the tide of overdoses, overdose deaths and related harms. It could pave the way for the expansion of regulatory models, ranging from prescriber-based opioid agonist therapy (OAT) and other safer supply options provided for within the Risk Guidance – while at the same time allowing the province to explore possibilities that are not wholly dependent on doctors and other medical providers, such as community-led Heroin Compassion Clubs.

Premier Horgan, with no end in sight to the continuing loss of life and harm to drug users, and as we mark the five year anniversary of Dr. Kendall’s declaration, we urge you to take bold action. The overdose crisis is a public health emergency–not a criminal issue. It is time to decriminalize simple drug possession in BC.

 

Respectfully,

Patrick McDougall
Co-Chair, PAN
Director of Knowledge Translation and Evaluation, Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation

J. Evin Jones
Executive Director, PAN

CC

  • The Honourable Adrian Dix, M.L.A., Minister of Health
  • The Honourable Mike Farnworth, M.L.A., Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General of British Columbia
  • The Honourable Sheila Malcolmson, M.L.A, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions

 

*By way of background, the Pacific AIDS Network (PAN) leads an inspired, strong, and effective community-based response to HIV, Hepatitis C, and related health and social justice issues. PAN is a proactive provincial network of over 40 community-based and allied organizations. Our work is grounded in collaboration to reflect the voices and needs of member organizations and communities. Our work in BC and with partners across the country includes advocacy, policy change, capacity building, leadership training, research and evaluation. See www.pacificaidsnetwork.org