In the context of the current public health emergency, there is an urgent need for the BC Government to take all possible steps to remove legal and other barriers to evidence-based health services for people who use drugs.
In 2016, 982 people died in BC as a result of illicit-drug overdose. Data released by the BC Coroners Service confirms that 1,013 people died from illicit-drug overdose in the first eight months of 2017, putting the province on track to see 1,520 illicit-drug overdose deaths in 2017.
In April 2016, the BC government showed strong leadership by declaring a public health emergency. However, despite official recognition that drug use is a public health issue, drug users remain highly criminalized. Even more astounding is the fact that community-based service providers, grassroots organizers, and individual drug users who have been on the frontlines preventing thousands of overdose deaths remain at risk of criminal charges because they do not hold a federal exemption.
On the stereotype of the “drug kingpin”: Why tougher penalties for fentanyl trafficking won’t end the overdose crisis
When many of us hear the term “drug dealer” our subconscious conjures a shadowy figure trafficking in human misery and suffering while living large off ill-gotten profits. It’s a powerful, convenient image, but largely inaccurate, at least when it comes to who is being arrested and convicted on drug charges in Canada.
Earlier this year, the BC Court of Appeal rolled out a harsher sentencing range for individuals convicted of selling fentanyl: instead of the usual range of six to 12 months, the Court ruled that street-level fentanyl dealers should receive sentences of between 18 and 36 months, or even longer.
Now, BC’s Minister of Public Safety, Mike Farnworth, has stated that BC is considering giving Crown counsel the ability to charge accused fentanyl dealers with manslaughter. The tragedy of overdose deaths unfolding across this province is all too real, and requires a strong government response, but as history has shown, the “war on drugs” approach to substance use has failed.
Farnworth, however, subsequently clarified his comments, saying the province would "target high-level players rather than street-level drug dealers," which is a welcome step back from hardline enforcement, but it remains to be seen if it would play out in practice.
(Photo credit: Sara Wylie, National Day of Action, February 21, 2017)
The reality is that many who deal drugs are victims of their own supply. Research from the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) has found that among people who use drugs, the most common reason for dealing is to support their addiction.
It is largely those living in poverty, homelessness, and with addictions who are being arrested and charged. Law enforcement disproportionately targets the most marginalized of street-level dealers. This is the same group of people who are devastated by the daily loss of friends and family, and are at great risk themselves of fatal overdose.
Moreover, the BCCSU has found that recent incarceration is associated with an increased likelihood of being involved with high-risk income-generating activities, including drug dealing. This suggests more policing creates a self-perpetuating cycle wherein policing fuels drug dealing, which in turn necessitates more policing—hardly a solution to the problem.
(Photo credit: Peter Kim, Maple Ridge RCMP, 2017)
There is substantial evidence showing that incarceration can negatively impact the health and social outcomes of those living with addiction—the very people society and government should be working to help. Incarceration is associated with an increased risk of HIV infections; delays initiating and interruptions to evidence-based opioid addiction care, including opioid agonist treatment during incarceration and following release; and reduced tolerance to drugs resulting in a dramatically increased risk of fatal overdose upon release. Addressing drug addiction requires medical intervention and evidence-based drug policies that decrease reliance on the illicit drug markets rather than the blunt instrument of the criminal law.
In the United States, lawmakers responded to the fear around the emergence of crack cocaine by introducing harsh sentences for offences involving crack that far exceeded those for powder cocaine and other illicit drugs. Police also responded with more aggressive enforcement. The end result was a discriminatory surge in the incarceration of poor, racialized people, the effects of which are still being felt in many communities.Read more
Ottawa's mayor and city council have voiced support for shutting down the city's peer-run, life-saving overdose prevention site which has seen more than 1,100 visits since first opening. In the context of Canada's current, unprecedented overdose epidemic, we believe such services must be maintained, and to close them would be both immoral and potentially life threatening.
Earlier this month, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) endorsed a landlord practice that many are concerned violates tenants’ privacy and stigmatizes people who use drugs: landlords in BC are increasingly using drug-sniffing dogs to search the public spaces of residential buildings, allegedly to prevent grow-ops, drug trafficking, and other illicit drug-related activities.
Whereas police officers are constrained in their use of drug-sniffing dogs by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and departmental rules and regulations, property owners relying on private businesses for dog services are held to a far lower standard. This raises obvious concerns around tenant privacy, stability of tenure for people who use drugs, and drug use stigma. It also has the potential to exacerbate the risks associated with drug use by driving it further underground.Read more
(Photo credit: Peter Kim, Maple Ridge RCMP officers outside Anita Place tent city, 2017)
A man ran up to me in an alley. “I heard you’re a lawyer. I need help,” he said.
He was a young man, in the early days of recovery from a history of drug use, and he had relapsed. Relapse is common for people with addictions, but in the context of BC’s ongoing and escalating fentanyl crisis, relapsing can be fatal.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. He woke up to find the police standing over him and was handed a stack of papers—some charging him criminally with drug possession, others ticketing him with a $150 penalty under local bylaws.
Imagine that man was a friend, family member, or neighbour who was dying in front of your eyes. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about calling 911 to save a life, and we expect others would do the same for us. But for many people who use drugs, calling for help means exposing themselves, or the person in distress, to criminal sanctions. It’s an indefensible, immoral position our woefully inadequate criminal justice laws occasion for vulnerable people who use drugs.
The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act came into force in May 2017, ostensibly to encourage people to call 911 when witnessing an overdose in order to save a life. In the midst of the worst overdose crisis this province and country has ever seen, this appeal to human decency and compassion—the duty to save a life—is paramount, or at least should be. But some police forces seem to have other ideas.Read more
Broad coalition of legal organizations calling for significant reform to British Columbia’s justice system
For Immediate Release
August 30, 2017
Vancouver, BC – Pivot Legal Society, Community Legal Assistance Society, BC Civil Liberties Association, and West Coast LEAF are calling on the provincial government to implement significant changes to BC’s justice and legal systems in order to support marginalized and Indigenous communities in the province, and to improve the delivery of justice to all British Columbians.
The organizations urged the BC Government to work closely with Indigenous communities to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to respect Aboriginal Rights and Title.
The coalition of non-partisan organizations working on justice issues proposed reforms that are principally under the responsibility of the Attorney General and the Solicitor General. The recommendations are categorized into ten main areas of law and policy, including, but not limited to policing, corrections, access to justice, family law, mental illness and addiction, poverty and income inequality, and human rights. The full list of recommendations can be read here.Read more
Pivot Legal Society applauds opening of Toronto’s first pop-up safe injection site and urges federal government to expedite approvals of pending site applications
For Immediate Release
August 14, 2017
Toronto, ON – In the context of the public health emergency in Toronto and in cities across Canada, Pivot Legal Society applauds the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance’s courageous and compassionate move to open the city’s first unsanctioned safe injection site. It will undoubtedly save countless lives, as similar sites in Vancouver have done.
“Up until a few days ago, drug users in Toronto who are facing enormous overdose risk have been deprived of access to a safe place to consume drugs. The fact that the activist community has had to take matters into their own hands to provide this life-saving form of health care is proof that Canada’s authorization process is not working, and must be revisited immediately so that sites can operate when and where they are needed,” said Katrina Pacey, executive director of Pivot Legal Society.
Toronto’s first “pop-up” safe injection site opened over the weekend by a small group of volunteers with limited resources. The Toronto police have stated that they will allow the site to operate despite the lack of federal government authorization.Read more
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