BC’s Select standing committee on health
After 6 years of a declared public emergency due to illicit drug toxicity, and after at least 6,000 deaths in BC, the provincial government has asked for yet another report on the crisis, instead of acting on the clear and tangible demands of drug users and their allies. On April 4 2022, BC’s Legislative Assembly asked its Select Standing Committee on Health to examine the urgent and ongoing illicit drug toxicity and overdose crisis, and in particular:
- The increasing toxicity of illicit drug supplies in British Columbia, including but not limited to, trends in the patterns of use of illicit drugs, the illegal drug market, the role of organized crime, and the rapid increase in toxicity coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic;
- The systems and services guiding government responses to illicit drug supplies and toxicity deaths and injuries in Canada (federal, provincial, territorial and local) and other jurisdictions; and,
- Relevant and recent reports, studies and examinations as the Committee deems appropriate.
The Committee was asked to make recommendations about:
- Responding to the crisis with reforms and initiatives by the Province and local governments, including those which may require federal approval;
- Continuing to build an evidence-based continuum of care that encompasses prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery; and,
- Expanding access to safer drug supplies, implementing decriminalization, and disrupting illicit toxic drug supplies.
To read more about the committee and its terms of reference, go to:
Enough is enough!
Pivot was asked to testify before the committee on June 16, alongside our comrades at the BC Association of People on Opioid Maintenance. Though our organizations agreed to appear, we did not take the decision lightly. We are disillusioned by decades of provincial inaction. We are convinced that an ad hoc ‘examination’ of the of opioid crisis is too little, too late. But we also remain committed to using a diversity of tactics: speaking truth to power before government committees is just one tool among many that we can and will use to fight the War on Drugs.
On the day of our hearing, one thing was clear: the need for lawmakers to hear directly from people who use drugs is critical and non-negotiable. BCAPOM Board members (Howard C, Jeff Louden, Ryan Maddeux, Garth Mullins, Brian O’Donnell, and Laura Shaver) raged about the injustices of an oppressive prescription system, under which ‘patients’ receiving opioid maintenance prescriptions must attend a pharmacy multiple times a day; undergo urine screening tests; be witnessed while consuming their prescription; and be prohibited, for the most part, from carrying their prescriptions off-site. The conditions associated with opioid maintenance prescriptions are in and of themselves a full-time job that makes working, attending school, child-rearing, and socializing incredibly challenging if not impossible.
Listen to Pivot and BCAPOM’s full testimony here:
For Pivot’s part, we recommended that the Province stop finger-pointing and use its powers to step in where municipalities, police, and the professional Colleges (i.e. the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the College of Pharmacists) are daily undermining harm reduction and safe supply efforts. Municipalities are constantly threatening to close drug user-led spaces through zoning bylaws and business license denials. Police are loitering outside of overdose prevention sites and seizing harm reduction supplies. The Colleges are implementing and maintaining barriers to opioid prescriptions. All the while, the Province has consistently failed to monitor these situations, much less use its jurisdiction to ensure the health, safety, and liberation of people who use drugs.
In brief, we made the following recommendations:
That the Province take a more active role to prevent municipalities from undermining harm reduction efforts of people who use drugs (PWUD) by:
- Actively monitoring and intervening when municipalities make decisions that impact public health, including zoning bylaw amendments and business license denials.
- Amending the Community Charter to affirm that provincial approval is required for ALL municipal decisions impacting public health and harm reduction, including zoning enactments and determinations regarding re-zoning applications and business licences.
- Fulfill 2016 Ministerial Order M-488:
- Work with (and fund) health authorities and drug user groups to establish and maintain overdose prevention services in all communities.
- Invest in property for the use of drug user groups and their harm reduction initiatives.
- Provide realistic funding for the establishment and continuation of drug user groups.
That the Province prevent police from interfering with harm reduction, including at drug user groups, by:
- Legislating “bubble zones” around harm reduction services and drug user-run spaces to prevent police loitering, interference, and intimidation within these zones.4 The presence of police is a deterrent to accessing life-saving services. A “bubble zone” law could mirror BC’s Access to Abortion Services Act, which protects access to abortion services by preventing activities such as protesting, physical interference, and intimidation from occurring outside of abortion facilities.5
- Issuing a directive under the Public Health Act6 to police and the BC Provincial Court to treat harm reduction supplies as health supplies rather than drug paraphernalia—and therefore not a basis for search, detention, arrest, or breach of a bail/probation order.
- Amending the Police Act (pursuant to the 2019 recommendation of BC’s Provincial Health Officer)7 to divert police resources away from the enforcement of simple possession and street-based drug trafficking. This would complement the Province’s s.56 decriminalization exemption by ensuring the allocation of police resources reflects a deprioritization of low- level drug offences.
That the Province improve access to prescription-grade safe supply by:
- Using s. 13 of the Health Professions General Regulation11 to, because of the current Public Health Emergency (declared in 2016), override barriers to prescription-grade safe supply imposed by the professional regulatory bodies (i.e., the Colleges of Physicians and Pharmacists).
- Using s. 3 of the Health Authorities Act12 to improve provincial standards for the healthcare of PWUD. This could include:
- Requiring training and/or providing curriculum for prescribers of heroin and other opioids that reflect harm reduction principles; and
- Mandating the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons to establish standards and clinical guidelines for prescribing heroin and other opioids, not just for opioid use disorder, but more generally, to meet the needs of all PWUD and account for illicit drug market toxicity.
The Committee’s report is due to the Legislative Assembly by November 2, 2022. We won’t hold our breath, but we hope the Committee will honour Pivot and BCAPOM’s time, energy, and experience by implementing our recommendations. In the meantime, we’ll continue our fight—in government offices, in the Courts, and on the streets.
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.