By Laura Keil, Publisher/Editor

The BC government’s application to the feds to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use is long overdue, as lethal overdose numbers continue to climb in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Minister of Mental Health and Addictions said the application is intended to reduce and prevent drug poisoning deaths, which have ballooned since the start of the pandemic. She said reducing criminal penalties is expected to be a major tool in reducing overdose deaths.

“Substance use and addictions is a public health issue, it is not a criminal justice issue,” Minister Sheila Malcolmson said during a press conference Monday.

Amen to that. While drug trafficking and manufacturing remain a serious criminal offence, numerous studies show there is little good that comes from criminalizing drug users struggling with a complex array of mental health and substance use disorders.

The Minister noted that “shame and fear” keep people from accessing services and treatments that could save their life.

Decriminalizing possession of small amounts, combined with other strategies like creating a safe legal drug supply, are some of the bold policies we must entertain to tackle this crisis. This is a hopeful step, and one that feels late to the game. I sincerely hope we can act with the same resoluteness that we have during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, 1200 more people in B.C. have died from overdoses during the last two years, than have died from COVID-19 (3000 compared to 1800).

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said years of criminalizing drug users has failed to end the crisis.

“Criminalizing people using drugs has meant punishing those that are already suffering,” she said.

The goal of decriminalization is to reduce suffering and death, she says.

“It is a compassionate and rational response to a health crisis.”

I hope Health Canada agrees.