A Year Into BC Drug Decrim, Opposing Narratives Clash

    It’s now been over a year since British Columbia decriminalized adult possession of small quantities of drugs. A three-year pilot project took effect in the Canadian province on January 31, 2023, after receiving approval from the federal agency Health Canada. 

    BC’s overdose crisis has continued, with 2,511 suspected drug-related deaths recorded in 2023. That’s the highest number the province has seen, and up 5 percent on 2022. Harm reduction advocates have always argued that decriminalization alone isn’t sufficient to curb death rates, but point to other benefits of the policy.

    Yet opponents have used the increase in overdose deaths to argue against the efficacy of both decriminalization and harm reduction efforts in general.

    In response, a group of harm reductionists penned a post on the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) website to mark the one-year anniversary of decriminalization. They wrote that in some ways, decriminalization is meeting its goals, though other measures are also badly needed.

    Lovegrove and her coauthors wanted to “counter the warping of facts and reality” surrounding decriminalization.

    The authors of the post included Sarah Lovegrove, a registered nurse and member of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association. She and her coauthors collectively agreed that they wanted to “counter … the warping of facts and reality” surrounding decriminalization, she told Filter

    One of its key goals is to decrease arrests and incarceration in cases of drug possession. By that measure, decriminalization seems to have had a positive impact: For the period from February-July 2023, BC reported that the number of “possession offenses” had fallen by 76 percent compared to the four-year average.

    That said, according to reporting by the Maple, drug seizures in amounts at or below 2.5 grams increased by 34 percent in BC’s biggest city of Vancouver in the first six months of 2023. The discrepancy might be explained by the difference between city and province, and also by the fact that police seize drugs in cases where drug possession is not the primary reason for arrest.

    In an emailed response to Filter, a spokesperson for BC’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions wrote that the province aims to treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one, “so more people struggling with addiction feel comfortable reaching out for help.”

    They added that “early data indicates that the program is working as one part of our work to address the toxic drug crisis by saving lives, connecting people to care, and supporting people through their recovery journey.”

    The email also noted that factors separate from decriminalization contribute to deaths, including the crisis growing “more complex and unpredictable” since the pandemic. 

    The fact that decriminalization does not directly address the volatile drug supply explains why the Vancouver-based Drug User Liberation Front continued to operate an unsanctioned compassion club, giving participants a consistent supply of tested drugs to keep them safe. Two DULF co-founders are currently facing prosecution for this. 

    The BC spokesperson stated that the provincial government is not interested in ending decriminalization: “Ending this measure will not save lives, but rather would increase fear of criminalization, making it harder for people to feel comfortable to access care. As the toxicity of illicit street drugs continues to increase, more people are at serious risk.”  

    Lovegrove noted, however, that critics of harm reduction are using some of 2023’s numbers to argue in favor of BC’s Bill 34. This would ban drug use in various public spaces such as parks, playgrounds and bus stops, permitting arrests, searches and the seizure of any recovered substances. BC’s Supreme Court previously shot down the bill, but it’s still receiving support, including from some mayors in the province. 

    There’s precedent to suggest narratives around visible drug use can see positive efforts rolled back, Lovegrove said. For instance, a harm reduction service including a pop-up safe consumption site in Nanaimo, BC, run by the Nanaimo Area Network of Drug Users, closed down in 2023 after local residents registered complaints. At the time, the organizers attributed the closure, in part, to the spread of “a narrative about how terrible” the service was, Nanaimo News Now reported. 

    Conservative news outlets have also worked to place the blame for an increase in overdose deaths in Oregon on the state’s decriminalization of drug possession, approved by voters in 2020. A 2023 peer-reviewed article found no connection, while drug arrests have decreased. But legislative and ballot efforts are underway to roll back Oregon’s Measure 110.

    “People use openly and in public because they don’t want to die.”

    Using perceived flaws in BC’s decriminalization to justify something like Bill 34 would cause many issues, according to Lovegrove. She said parts of the bill are “quite redundant,” when the decriminalization framework already prohibits drug use in some public spaces, such as playgrounds. But Bill 34 would extend this to other spaces, including some public streets. Pushing people who use drugs completely out of public spaces, she said, could result in more deaths, as it would make them harder to find when an overdose occurs. 

    “People use openly and in public because they don’t want to die,” Lovegrove said. “They don’t use … in public because they want to expose other people.”  

    The narratives represented by Bill 34 also increase the stigmatization of people who use drugs, she added.

    Lovegrove said that decriminalization is only “one piece of the puzzle” when it comes to reducing overdose deaths in BC, and that different major variables drove the rise in deaths in 2023. She cited the cost of housing as one of the biggest issues, when BC has the highest rental prices among Canadian provinces. 

    More affordable housing would help people find stability, and recent research has detailed how reducing homelessness could reduce drug-related deaths. Other needs Lovegrove listed include stronger health care supports, the creation of more supervised consumption sites (particularly in rural areas), and increasing the quantities of drugs people can carry under BC’s decriminalization rules.

    That last point has been a source of contention ever since BC’s decriminalization plans were announced. As Filter previously reported, harm reduction experts expressed strong concerns over the threshold amounts covered by decriminalization—generally 2.5 grams of cocaine formulations, opioids, meth and others—and the role of police in setting these limits.

    Increasing the thresholds would make people in possession of larger quantities feel more comfortable accessing drug-checking services, Lovegrove said, by removing the fear of being arrested or having their drugs confiscated. She noted that people often buy drugs for personal use in larger quantities, much like a person would buy groceries to last a week. 

    Natasha Touesnard is the executive director of the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs (CAPUD). In this capacity, she often travels to BC to witness the impacts of decriminalization, and has heard more from CAPUD members based in the province. 

    Touesnard said that the decrease in total drug charges in the province is a positive, but asked, “What about the other individuals that may have had a larger quantity?”  

    Touesnard also agreed with Lovegrove’s assessment of the impact of housing issues in BC. Rents have “skyrocketed,” she told Filter. Plus, when affordable housing developments are built, they are often located away from many of the harm reduction services that people who use drugs may rely on. 

    Couch-surfing isn’t even “really a thing now because most people just don’t have homes,” she said.

    Both Touesnard and Lovegrove told Filter that to effectively combat overdose deaths, the province should consider legalizing and regulating drugs.

    Touesnard added that supports like a universal basic income project, providing everyone with enough money to live on, could also help reduce deaths in the province. Currently, social services don’t provide nearly enough, she said. 

    Other changes she would like to see going forward would be decriminalizing the possession of benzodiazepines, which aren’t included in BC’s decriminalization framework but are appearing more and more—often unexpectedly, for people making purchases—in the province’s drug market. 

    Both Touesnard and Lovegrove told Filter that to effectively combat overdose deaths, the province should consider legalizing and regulating drugs, a big step beyond decriminalization. 

    Lovegrove noted that when 80 percent of overdose deaths in 2023 occurred indoors, regulation would remove the unpredictability of the current drug market, meaning people who use drugs in their homes —potentially with no one at hand to help in case of overdose—would be at much lower risk.

    And taking that next big step, Touesnard said, would effectively combat the stigma around drug use. With legalization, “People may feel more comfortable to access services, harm reduction services—to reach out to somebody if they have an issue.”  



    Photograph (cropped) by British Columbia Emergency Photography via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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