Last year, advocates marched to Cranbrook city hall in support of a regulated safe supply as a response to preventing deaths from drug poisonings. Trevor Crawley photo.

Last year, advocates marched to Cranbrook city hall in support of a regulated safe supply as a response to preventing deaths from drug poisonings. Trevor Crawley photo.

Decriminalization of personal drug possession measures don’t go far enough, says advocate

Some decriminalization measures for possession of small amounts of illicit substances for personal use announced last week don’t go far enough, says a Cranbrook advocate for people who use drugs.

Jessica Lamb, Peer Lead Development Coordinator with ANKORS says the decriminalization threshold of 2.5 grams for personal possession is too low, while adding that the policy doesn’t take effect until January 2023 — seven months from now.

It also doesn’t confront the central outcomes of fatal overdoses caused by an increasingly toxic drug supply, Lamb said.

“I’m a little torn between it because it’s like, first of all, great that we’ve gone ahead and decriminalized 2.5 grams of personal possession and it’s not going to start until January 2023, so how many more needless deaths are going to happen between now and then?” Lamb asked.

“The other issue is that it doesn’t address safe supply.”

On Tuesday (May 30), Health Canada granted British Columbia a three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to remove criminal penalties for people who possess up to 2.5 grams of illicit substances for personal use.

B.C. made the application to Health Canada in November, requesting a decriminalization threshold of 4.5 grams for personal possession, Health Canada only approved 2.5 grams, which has been criticized by drug user groups and advocates.

The absolutist threshold of 2.5 grams is a concern for Lamb, in the context of potential seizures or charges from law enforcement if someone is in possession of a larger amount for personal use.

“If you’re carrying more than 2.5 grams, does that mean you’re trafficking or you have an intent to sell and are the threats of repercussions for your actions going to be harsher?” asked Lamb.

Carolyn Bennett, the Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, along with provincial cabinet counterpart Sheila Malcolmson, both noted the intent is to decriminalize people, and not the legalization of illicit substance use.

“Removing the fear of criminal charges, removing the stigma about drug use was a major part of our application and part of our work to build a system of substance use care, which includes so many other things — adding base bed treatment, drug testing, prescribed safe supply, many other interventions,” Malcolmson said, in an interview with Black Press Media on Thursday, June 2.

On the 2.5 gram threshold for personal possession, Malcolmson noted a commitment from Health Canada that the decriminalization framework could be modified to a higher amount in the future, based on an evaluation framework in place that will ensure there aren’t unintended consequences, or that people who use drugs are being recriminalized.

One of the reasons for the seven-month delay to the Jan. 31, 2023 implementation of the decriminalization policy is for training on culture and systemic changes, according to Malcolmson.

“The threshold is a floor, not a ceiling and if it is clearly personal use, then we expect that police would exercise their discretion to avoid charges or confiscations over the 2.5 gram-threshold because this is a floor, not a ceiling,” Malcolmson said.

From a policing perspective, it remains to be seen how much of an absolute the 2.5 gram possession threshold is before seizure by law enforcement.

“In light of this announcement, we are working diligently to ensure our officers have up to date training and knowledge necessary in order to serve our communities,” said D/Commr. Dwayne McDonald, Commanding Officer of the BC RCMP, in a statement. “The RCMP, in collaboration with our policing partners in BC, will make adjustments to our policies and procedures to align with the guidance from the federal and provincial government.”

Two years ago, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada issued guidance to federal Crown on the prosecution of possession of illicit substances files, acknowledging the reality that substance use has a health component and that criminal sanctions have limited effectiveness for deterrence.

“The approach set out in this guideline directs prosecutors to focus upon the most serious cases raising public safety concerns for prosecution and to otherwise pursue suitable alternative measures and diversion from the criminal justice system for simple possession cases,” according to a statement from the PPSC.

Calls for safe supply

Lamb is one of many advocates calling for a regulated safe supply of substances, as fentanyl was detected in 86 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2021, according to the BC Coroners Service.

“We’ve been advocating for so long, safe supply is what we need,” said Lamb. “Decrim is great, drug testing is great…but it doesn’t address the toxic drug supply, and that’s what’s killing people.”

A death review panel — an in-depth investigation and analysis of the toxic drug crisis — was recently released by the BC Coroners Service, which recommended a safer drug supply, decriminalization and the expansion of an evidence-based continuum of care.

Malcolmson said the provincial government started a prescribed safe supply program in March 2020, and has expanded the kinds of substances that can be prescribed, such as fentanyl patches.

Between March 2020 to December 2021, more than 12,000 people have been connected with prescribed safe supply, 7,00 of which were an opioid, according to Malcolmson.

“Then there’s also, at the same time, there’s really interesting work that’s happening with prescribed medication assisted treatment,” Malcolmson said. “So safe supply is the replacement, OAT (Opioid Agonist Treatment) is the treatment — again, the first place in Canada that allows nurses to prescribe medication-assisted treatment, that’s going to have a particular impact on rural and remote areas.

“In fact, Interior Health has been really the leading health authority in enlisting and training up nurses because it is such an important way for people, easier to connect with nurses in many cases and they’re a really important response to the toxic drug crisis.”

In 2016, B.C. declared a public health emergency in response to increasing fatal outcomes from the toxic drug supply. Since that declaration, thousands of people have died due to illicit drug poisonings, according to the BC Coroners Service.

As the number of toxic drug deaths has risen provincially, so too has it risen locally.

Last year was the deadliest year on record for drug poisonings in B.C., as the B.C. Coroners Service reported 2,236 deaths due to the toxic drug supply. In Cranbrook, there were 16 deaths due to drug poisonings, rising from 10 deaths reported in 2020.

BC Ambulance Service paramedics also responded to a record number of overdose callouts last year. BC Emergency Health Services reported that BC paramedics responded to 35,525 overdose calls, while locally, 191 overdose calls were reported in Cranbrook.