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British Columbia

B.C. ‘fight continues’ during decriminalization amid safe supply calls, advocacy group members say

Members of a drug advocacy group have gathered to celebrate the start of decriminalization in British Columbia and discuss how they will “stand back” against any effort to seize illicit substances that hit the 2.5 gram threshold , which is permitted under the first such directive in Canada .

The meeting at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) office on day one of the new policy began with a man handing out Know Your Rights cards.

They say people aged 18 and over who are in possession of up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA or ecstasy for their own use will not have those drugs confiscated. There is also a list of reasons why someone would not be protected, including possession of any quantity of other substances, dealing in or selling drugs.

Decriminalization began Tuesday in BC after the federal government granted the province’s request for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act as part of a plan to tackle an overdose crisis that has killed over 11,000 there since 2016. The pilot project is planned to continue for three years.

People who are in possession of the permitted amount of drugs will not be arrested or charged, and the police can no longer confiscate their substances. The BC government says the goal of decriminalization is to reduce stigma so people struggling with addiction are more likely to seek help.

Vincent Tao, a community organizer at VANDU, told about 30 people in a room that the pilot was “just a foot in the door” for the group, which has campaigned for decriminalization throughout its 25-year history.

It was also embroiled in a legal battle against the former Conservative government to keep Insite, North America’s first monitored consumption facility, open and celebrated that victory following a 2011 Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

“The struggle goes on,” Tao told the gathering of former and current drug users.

“But ultimately, the power and discretion still rests in the hands of the cops. So we have to keep an eye on these things. Report directly to this room,” he said of the group’s efforts to compile a database of people’s experiences.

“We will continue to pursue this experiment with the support of our partners, friends and allies over the next three years of our lives.”

Members of VANDU, who have sat at the “core planning table” of decriminalization meetings with others, including Moms Stop the Harm, the BC police and government for about a year, suggested 18 grams as the threshold.

The BC government requested 4.5 grams, but as a cumulative amount for all permitted drugs, while the police wanted a gram total.

Tao called for drug users to be “armed” with their rights cards in all police interactions, noting that officers would not carry scales and would only “stare” at substances they believed might be over the threshold.

Fiona Wilson, vice president of the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police, which represents 9,200 members, said Monday the province’s death toll from illegal, toxic drugs, many containing the opioid fentanyl, is twice the national figure Average.

“Destigmatization is a significant step towards a more progressive drug policy. And it recognizes that substance use is a health issue, not a police issue. Police can now focus on those doing the most damage in this crisis – the individuals and organized crime groups who import, manufacture and distribute these toxic substances.”

Mental Health and Addiction Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the province is working to offer more treatment and harm reduction services after programs were expanded to offer a safer supply of alternative drugs.

Caitlin Shane, an attorney with the Pivot Legal Society who has also called for a higher threshold, told those gathered at VANDU that she was concerned that a yardstick for assessing the success of decriminalization could be a significant reduction in overdose deaths. Shane also worried about the need for proper support for those who need it.

Ottawa and BC are still trying to figure out what indicators will be used to assess the policy, but publicly available data is expected to be updated online every three months.

“We cannot measure the success of (decriminalization) by whether or not lives are saved, because the fact is, decriminalization today does not mean we can go out tomorrow and have access to a regulated drug supply. It doesn’t do anything for the drug supply,” Shane said.

“So what we have to be clear about is that this is where we’re measuring incarceration rates, the number of cops in people’s lives and the reduction in stigma.”

Garth Mullins, a board member of VANDU, has criticized both levels of government for relying on the police to distribute information cards that would direct people who use drugs to voluntary health services.

Mullins told the group that one measure of the success of decriminalization would be less police intervention.

“We have to fight for how this thing is measured. Luckily we fought for 25 years,” he says of VANDU’s efforts to open Insite, which received a government exemption in 2003. The facility, which is about six blocks away on downtown Eastside, allows people to shoot their own medication under medical supervision.

Members of VANDU were also instrumental in opening unauthorized overdose prevention facilities before the BC government allowed them to operate when the death toll from toxic drugs rose, forcing the province to declare a public health emergency in 2016.

Now Mullins says he is concerned about Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre’s stance against decriminalisation. He reminded the group that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also vowed not to implement the policy before reversing course with an approval of BC’s motion last May.

After celebrating the start of decriminalization, members of VANDU bowed their heads in a moment of silence to remember those who had fatally overdosed and to acknowledge the latest grim statistics released hours earlier by the BC Coroners services have been released. They showed that 2,272 people died last year, the second-highest annual figure after last year when 34 more people lost their lives.

Eris Nyx, co-founder of the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF), told the gathering she will continue her tradition of handing out free, tested heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, as she does each time overdose numbers are updated.

Tuesday marked the 13th Dope on Arrival giveaway, Nyx said, as people filed toward a table to demand a packet of drugs when her name was called.

“We’re taking these drugs to prove that the community can control its own safer care,” she said.

“Here is the real tragedy. If we don’t regulate the supply of medicines, people will die. And I’m telling you, don’t use it alone, especially if you’re an opioid user.

The group continues to sell drugs bought on the dark web through a compassion club at an undisclosed location in downtown Eastside, despite their request for exemption being denied last year. According to Health Canada, the controlled substances were purchased and produced illegally.

Nyx says DULF will file a motion for judicial review of the decision.

Canadian Press health reporting is supported by a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

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