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In Question Period, I asked the Premier what powers his government has available in order to move forward with decriminalization of simple possession of drugs in British Columbia, and why he has not used these powers to save lives in British Columbia.

Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illicit drugs is a fundamental part of supporting those who use drugs in B.C. and who are most vulnerable to death from the toxic supply. Our Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, called the decriminalization of drugs a necessary step in addressing this crisis.

We have lost far too many lives in our province because of the toxic drug supply. But there is action that can be taken right now to prevent this this loss of life. We need an evidence-based approach to address the systemic issues in this crisis. This is not about drugs. People are dying from drug policy.

Transcript

S. Furstenau: We lost 1,716 people to drug toxicity in 2020. We’ve already lost 165 people in the first month of 2021. People are dying every single day. We are in the middle of two health crises, and we need to start acting like it. We must prioritize the development of systemic policy responses that are immediate, evidence-based, and accessible. This is not about drugs. People are dying from drug policy.

Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illicit drugs is a fundamental part of supporting those who use drugs in B.C. and who are most vulnerable to death from the toxic supply. Dr. Henry called the decriminalization of drugs a necessary step in addressing this crisis. The City of Vancouver has submitted a request to the federal government to embrace decriminalization municipally. We can take direct action here in British Columbia, and we need to do it now to save lives.

My question is to the Premier. Can he outline exactly what powers his government has available in order to move forward with decriminalization of simple possession of drugs in B.C.?

Hon. S. Malcolmson: Thank you to the member for the question. Decriminalization is a priority for our government. In addition to the work that we are doing to build a full system of care to address people’s addiction challenges, whether that’s building more beds, whether that’s standing up more supervised consumption sites, whether working on safe supply, decriminalization is part of that, particularly because if we treat addiction and simple possession of small amounts of illicit drugs as a criminal matter instead of a health care matter, it presents a barrier to treatment, and particularly the kind of stigma that makes people use drugs alone. And when they use alone, tragically, they die alone.

Last year the Solicitor General asked the police force to drugs as a criminal manner instead of a health care matter, it presents a barrier to treatment, and particularly the kind of stigma that makes people use drugs alone. And when they use alone, tragically, they die alone.

Last year the Solicitor General asked the police force to address possession –– small amounts of personal possession of illicit drugs –– as a health care matter not as a criminal priority. Last summer the Premier wrote to the Prime Minister asking the Prime Minister, because this is a federal matter, to adopt a nationwide approach to decriminalization.

The Premier put it in my mandate letter, asking me to fast-track decriminalization as a way to combat the overdose crisis and further separate people from the toxic drug supply. I’m in active conversations with the federal Health Minister now. And as one of many approaches our government is bringing to combat the overdose crisis, we are optimistic that that can remove a barrier to people accessing the treatment they need.

Mr. Speaker: Leader of the Third Party on a supplemental.

S. Furstenau: Thank you to the minister for that response. Decriminalization is regularly painted as a federal issue, something this government likes to deflect their responsibility from. The federal government is an important leader in moving towards decriminalization of simple possession, but they are not the only ones responsible. It is a move that we can make as a province instead of always going back to the federal government.

Dr. Henry outlined in 2019 how the province can decriminalize people who use drugs, not drugs themselves, on our own. Options have been on the table for years, and government has decided not to pursue them with the urgency that this health emergency requires. Since then we have seen hundreds of lives lost at an increasing rate. We can take measures to decriminalize drug users in this province on our own, and we have not done so.

My question again is to the Premier. There are options here in-house to stop criminalizing drug users. Why has he not used these powers to save lives since 2019?

Hon. S. Malcolmson: This is a national overdose crisis. People are dying across the entire country, tragically, and particularly with the confluence of the pandemic –– both the COVID public health emergency and the overdose health emergency. We have seen a tragic loss of life due to increases in drug toxicity.

We have taken action in advance. The Solicitor General has sent letters to police departments asking them to not pursue matters of personal possession as a matter of criminal priority, asking police instead to focus on true crime. We have pilot projects with three police forces where people are being connected with health care instead of with the criminal justice system.

The Premier wrote to the Prime Minister and did not receive a reply last summer. But nevertheless, conversations with the federal Health Minister…. Because this is a federal matter, this is where the responsibility sits. We are asking the federal government to take up its priority and responsibility.

And as my mandate letter spells out, if we do not have prompt action from the federal government, then I am, along with some of my colleagues in government, to pursue a made-in-B.C. solution. That will be our fallback if the federal government fails to take its place and its power to lead.

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