Use of hard drugs should no longer be a crime, local nurses say in a pitch they believe could save lives.

The health care professionals added their voices to growing calls for decriminalization, saying they've seen firsthand the effects of the existing regulations in a province experiencing a public health emergency.

B.C. is the province most impacted by overdoses, with 462 lives lost from January through May of this year, according to coroners statistics. More than 1,500 people died by the end of last year.

But a recent study suggests even more lives were saved.

Between 2,900 and 3,240 overdose deaths were averted, the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of British Columbia and the Harm Reduction Nurses Association said in a statement issued Thursday.

Why decriminalization?

The groups suggest the decriminalization of use of hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, coupled with other strategies, could help save even more lives.

"As nurses who work in B.C. and provide frontline care in the midst of this public health emergency, we see firsthand the impact of criminalization on our clients, on their families, on our practice and our communities," the groups said.

"As nurses, we see decriminalization as an essential step to remove barriers to care and support, reduce stigma and discrimination, improve health and socioeconomic outcomes, and work toward a more just and compassionate society."

Decriminalization is different from legalization, where every part of the supply chain is regulated, including production in sales. As the term suggests, decriminalization simply means the action is no longer treated as illegal.

Whereas legalization efforts in B.C. have included the regulation of cannabis sales and even provincially-operated retail outlets, decriminalizing hard drugs would just mean those with minor possession charges would no longer be sent to jail.

What should B.C. do instead?

The NNPBC and HRNA ask the province to develop a new strategy for dealing with the overdose crisis that includes links to health care and social services.

One of the steps they suggest B.C. take is to redirect police resources from enforcement of drug possession toward community-based health and social programs.

"This is a critical way forward to address the overdose crisis and to promote greater health, wellbeing, justice, and equity at an individual and population level," the groups said. "Additional steps include ensuring access to a safer supply of substances, housing, mental health services, treatment, support, and harm reduction services."

Previous reports have suggested those charged with possession should instead face administrative fees, or be given access to supports. The nursing groups do not support fees, saying they still criminalize use and would not reduce harms.

Current measures 'ineffective'

A similar message was published by the province's top doctor earlier this year.

Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial officer of health, called for decriminalization in a 50-page report published in April. In her report, she suggested incarceration and other punitive approaches are ineffective. 

She said in many cases, arresting a drug user can actually have the opposite effect, putting that person at risk of getting sick or dying. Arrests can increase stigma, and create barriers to health care and social services.

Criminal charges can also have lasting impacts on employment and housing.

Despite Henry's argument, the province said decriminalization is not a step it's ready to take on its own.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said at the time that the decision was in the federal government's hands

"Possessing these substances is still illegal under federal law," Farnworth said in the spring. "No provincial action can change that. And as was the case with cannabis, no province can go it alone."