FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 1, 2021
Members of the Province’s Core Planning Table express concern and frustration that BC’s most marginalized drug users are getting left behind yet again
Vancouver, BC, Coast Salish Territories — Today, the Province unveiled its ‘made-in-BC’ model of decriminalization. While advocates agree it marks a step in the right direction, a close read of the fine print raises concerns that the model will not adequately protect people who use drugs. Numerous members of the Province’s Core Planning Table (CPT) are sounding the alarm on the last-minute inclusion of a low ‘cumulative threshold quantity,’ exclusion of people under 19, and reliance on police officers to provide health and social referrals—changes made without consultation or the support of the vast majority of CPT members. Among those speaking up today are the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, BC Centre on Substance Use, BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Métis Nation BC, Moms Stop the Harm, Pivot Legal Society, Rural Empowered Drug Users Network, Society of Living Illicit Drug Users, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drugs Users.
The BC Model of Decriminalization
If approved by Health Canada, BC’s model would provide some legal protection to people aged 19 and over who possess certain drugs at or below a total of 4.5 grams: Police would not be permitted to engage in drug seizures, arrests, or charges for simple possession at or below this amount.
The threshold of 4.5 grams is cumulative, meaning it refers to the combined quantity of drugs allowed to be carried, rather than the amount permitted of each individual substance. The word “cumulative” was added at the political level at the 11th hour. Despite numerous CPT members’ requests for more time to comment, these were denied by Minister Malcomson, who added that “further amendments would not be possible for some time.”
In BC, that means half of the 100,000 with ‘Opioid Use Disorder’ will still be criminalized.
Garth Mullins, member of VANDU, CPT member, and long-time community advocate says BC needs a policy that ends criminalization for all drug users: “The first meeting on drug decriminalization I went to was in August 1998. We know this stuff. We know how much dope people use and possess. Decriminalization is about cops getting out of the lives of drug users. Period. But when governments change the fine print and insist on lower possession thresholds, half of us get left behind. In BC, that means half of the 100,000 with ‘Opioid Use Disorder’ will still be criminalized, harassed, cuffed and jailed. Our drugs - and our liberty - will still be seized.”
Substances included in the Province’s application are those most commonly involved in illicit drug poisoning deaths: opioids (including heroin and fentanyl), powder cocaine and crack cocaine, and methamphetamine. Other substances, such as MDMA and psilocybin are currently still criminalized, despite frequently being used alongside other substances by people who use drugs.
Who Gets Left Behind?
Members of the CPT cede that BC’s proposal is a positive step--but not for all drug users. While nearly all CPT members stated support for higher thresholds and agreed that people who use drugs should be responsible for setting them, it was BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions who settled on 4.5 grams—and who refused requests to extend the feedback period prior to submission.
This last minute change demonstrates a complete disregard towards reconciliation, patient-centred care and is disrespectful to the lives lost in the opioid pandemic.
Dr. Kate Elliott, Minister for Mental Health & Addictions and Minister for Women & Gender Equity of Métis Nation BC summarizes CPT concerns as follows: “This last minute change demonstrates a complete disregard towards reconciliation, patient-centred care and is disrespectful to the lives lost in the opioid pandemic. Although this action is a step towards the goal—this might further target the population that we are aiming to serve. This will widen the disparity for our unhoused peoples as they do not have a privilege to store their substances in a safe location.”
Members of the CPT share grave concerns about several features of the BC model of decriminalization:
1. Cumulative Threshold Quantities
Many CPT members understood that the threshold quantity of 4.5 grams was based on individual substances, to reflect real patterns of drug use and purchase, polysubstance use, and data generated by VANDU and BC Centre on Substance Use. In particular, the thresholds do not reflect the lived realities of Indigenous communities and rural and remote populations. Members were informed less than 24 hours before feedback was due that the number was now cumulative, and thus failing to protect various groups of people who use drugs, including:
- Indigenous people and people in rural and remote communities, whose access to supply is limited
- Many polysubstance users (over half the participants of the Vancouver Injection Drug Users Study and the AIDS Care Cohort to Evaluate Exposure to Survival Services)
- People who purchase for others or who rely on others to purchase for them—disproportionately women and people with disabilities
- Unhoused people who must carry all belongings on their person
- People who use large quantities of substances
We need to be pushing forward policy that fits the actual needs of the people who use drugs. This is not that.
Amber Streukens, member of the Rural Empowered Drug Users Network and CPT member, highlights the ineffectiveness of BC’s model to serve people who use drugs in rural and remote communities: “A cumulative threshold of 4.5 grams does not reflect the needs or substance use patterns of people who use drugs - especially for folks living in rural and remote locations of the province, and polysubstance users. The unanticipated, last-minute addition of a “cumulative” criteria will exclude a significant proportion of people who use drugs. If our drive towards decriminalization is truly propelled by public health with the intent to reduce harm, we need to be pushing forward policy that fits the actual needs of the people who use drugs. This is not that.”
2. Age limit
Criminalization is harmful to everyone, regardless of age. Young people who use drugs are in need of the same protections provided by decriminalization as are people of-age, but BC’s model only applies to adults aged 19 and over. This is particularly concerning given BC’s track record of drafting legislation that would force youth into involuntary hospitalization upon experiencing overdose.
We need to protect youth from laws that cut short their progress to adulthood--not saddle them with a criminal record.
Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, warns that BC’s model preserves the unfair treatment of youth who use drugs: “The BC model does not include protections for youth - those under 19. Instead, it threatens to throw youth into the criminal justice system for possessing any amount of illicit substance, despite what we know about the harms of drug prohibition and criminalization for young people. This is not what we families want for our kids. We need to protect youth from laws that cut short their progress to adulthood--not saddle them with a criminal record.”
3. Police referrals and involvement
Members of the CPT appreciate the exclusion of administrative penalties, but worry about police’s continued interaction with people who use drugs, if only in the context of providing health and social referrals. A long-term objective of the Province’s model is to “increase PWUD trust in law enforcement and criminal justice system.” This recognizes the colonial, racist, anti-poor history of policing in Canada regarding people who use drugs. However, as it is well-established that any interaction with police will be experienced as oppressive and detention-based by certain marginalized groups including people who use drugs, we oppose the role of police in the BC model and in the lives of people who use drugs. A drug policy that is truly evidence-based and health-focussed does not include police.
The BC model for decriminalization does not meet the needs or truths of Indigenous drug users.
Geoff Rankin, Policy Director of the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, is concerned with BC’s approach to decriminalization and the inclusion of reconciliation and decolonization in the process: “Reconciliation in BC and Canada is needed, but it cannot be a one sided approach. We must have truth before reconciliation, and the truth of the matter is, the BC model for decriminalization does not meet the needs or truths of Indigenous drug users. The process by which the CPT members were engaged with was a highly colonial process devoid of any decolonial processes or taking into consideration that the data shows that Indigenous drug users continue to make up a large part of those criminalized and harmed by the continued drug war. The BC model needs to listen to drug users and meet them where they are at, take reconciliation seriously by putting actionable processes in place to ensure decolonization of this process is real and not just another ill-conceived plan that will need to be redone when drug users and those supporting them have spoken clearly already on what is needed.”
The harms of drug prohibition make clear that no person should be criminalized for simple drug possession. It is critical then that decriminalization policies account for the realities of drug use and purchase, so that the greatest number of people can benefit from the policy. Threshold quantities must be inclusive--but BC’s cumulative threshold leaves many people who use drugs behind, missing a great opportunity to put a dent in the War on Drugs. And of course, legal regulation for a safe supply of drugs must be paired with decriminalization to stem the unrelenting tide of overdose deaths.
Brittany Graham, VANDU
Garth Mullins, VANDU
Caitlin Shane, Pivot Legal Society
Leslie McBain, Moms Stop the Harm
Ricki-Lee Jewell, BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres
- 30 -
Background Information & Documents
BC’s Core Planning Table
In April 2021, 5 years into the drug poisoning crisis, BC announced plans to decriminalize drug possession throughout the province by seeking a federal exemption under section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Following this announcement, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions assembled the CPT to inform the model. The CPT includes health, harm reduction and human rights organizations, Indigenous organizations, research and policy groups, advocates, municipal governments, police, and health authorities.
Last week, the Province finalized details of its proposed model, adding a last-minute “cumulative threshold.” This means that 4.5 grams represents the total quantity of drugs a person can possess in BC, rather than the quantity per substance. CPT members had less than 24 hours to review the new proposal, which many say fails to fully reflect the CPT’s recommendations and feedback.
Act Now! Decriminalizing Drugs in Vancouver - Pivot Legal Society
VANDU & Pivot’s position on threshold amounts in Vancouver's application to decriminalize
Letter to BC Ministers Urging Against Bill 22's Passage into Law - Canadian Drug Policy Coalition & Pivot Legal Society
Organizations endorsing this release
- BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres
- BC Centre for Substance Use
- BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors
- Canadian Drug Policy Coalition
- Métis Nation BC
- Moms Stop the Harm
- Pivot Legal Society
- Rural Empowered Drug Users Network
- Society of Living Illicit Drug Users
- Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.