Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is urging the government to decriminalize drug possession for personal use, calling it a necessary step in solving the overdose crisis that has gripped B.C. But the government is indicating that’s not a step it’s ready to take.

In a 49-page report released in Victoria Wednesday, Henry takes an in-depth look at the challenges the province faces as it wrestles with the epidemic, provides a timeline of anti-drug policy in Canada and discusses what she calls the global failure of the war on drugs.

In the end, "Stopping the Harm" provides a single recommendation.

"Immediate provincial action is warranted and I recommend that the Province of B.C. urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use," Henry wrote. "This is an important additional step to stem the tide of unprecedented deaths."

At a news conference, Henry noted this isn’t the same as legalization where every part of the supply chain from production to sales is regulated. What she's suggesting is that those with minor possession charges instead be given access to supports or administrative charges rather than sending users to jail.

Another physician with experience treating addictions said the policy change wouldn’t solve the crisis but would help save lives. Dr. Keith Ahamad said taxpayer dollars were being hemmoraged by ineffective policies focused more on the fallout of drug use rather than treatment and supports. He was blunt in his assessment.

“Due to decades of neglect and bad policy-making in British Columbia, we currently do not have a functioning system of addiction care to link people to,” said Ahamad.

Henry also noted the overdose crisis was so severe, that it is impacting life expectancy in the province. She says her report is a call to action.

The report was released the same day as the federal government announced funding for new initiatives to increase knowledge about drug use and treatment and to decrease harms associated with opioids.

Patchwork system currently in place

Henry says right now how police forces deal with the issue varies. She’d like to see the province take a lead role in pushing through a policy where those with small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use aren’t criminalized but rather helped.

Victoria’s police chief says while officers have discretion on who to arrest, they are not focusing their efforts on those who are using drugs.

“I dedicate zero resources to minor drug possession,” said Del Manak at a news conference. “I don’t have the resources to do it what we do is we target drug traffickers who use violence.”

That policy he admitted varies by police force. Manak said he supports the approach and could start a discussion with the government. What the provincial health officer is asking for is some sort of a provincial policy that can be applied in B.C. and that essentially bypasses the federal government to take action.

Henry said Ottawa has made it clear it’s not interested in making any major drug policy changes, after recently legalizing marijuana. She added she would continue to advocate at the federal level that the current drug policy isn’t working.

“We cannot wait for the federal government to make those changes, with the unprecedented deaths we continue to see here in British Columbia.”

Public safety minister puts ball in Ottawa’s court

Mike Farnworth, who serves as public safety minister and solicitor general spoke about the report's recommendation a few hours after it was made public, and left the decision with Ottawa.

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

Current policies 'ineffective, harmful': Henry

The report commended steps taken by government since a public health emergency was declared in 2016 over the opioid crisis, including safe consumption sites and drug-checking services, but said these measures alone have proven insufficient in curbing the number of deaths caused by illicit drugs.

"Despite these life-saving activities, the BC Coroners Service reports that the number of deaths has continued to rise and remains at consistently high levels throughout the province," Henry wrote.

Illicit overdose deaths increased slightly to 1,489 in 2018 from 1,486 the year before despite the province's prevention efforts.

Leslie McBain whose son Jordan died in 2014 due to overdose, founded the group Moms Stop the Harm. She’s been advocating for policies that can save lives, and for resources to help families.

“If it were any other disease if it were any other way that people were dying of any other epidemic, they would be on it,” she said at a news conference in Victoria. “Our children are dying, our loved ones are dying. And defacto decriminalization is one step in the right direction.”

She agreed with Henry’s assessment that the current prohibition-based approach to drug laws is "ineffective, harmful and stigmatizing.”

Henry cites evidence that this system poses a disproportionate threat to certain groups – namely women and their families – both in terms of physical dangers and stigma brought on by criminalization.

"Law enforcement and health officials recognize that B.C. cannot arrest its way out of the overdose crisis," she wrote.

The health officer's report also discusses the societal burden of criminalizing all possession of controlled substances, including the cost of incarceration and the creation of a lucrative illegal drug market that has led to drug trade violence and a more toxic drug supply that puts users at a greater risk of overdosing.

Henry cites Portugal, where the possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use is no longer considered a crime, as an example of the potential benefits of decriminalization.

"Evidence has shown that this drug police model along with other interventions … has led to an increase in treatment uptake, a reduction in drug-related deaths and importantly, no increase in drug use rates," she wrote.

2 ways to decriminalize

"Stopping the Harm" recommends two types of policy changes should B.C. move ahead with decriminalizing drug possession for personal use.

The first involves using provincial legislation, specifically the Police Act, in such a way to allows B.C.'s public safety ministry to set health and harm reduction as priorities when it comes to policing those who use drugs.

"This type of approach would provide pathways for police to link people to health and social services, and would support the use of administrative penalties rather than criminal charges for simple possession," Henry wrote.

The second approach, the health officer said, would be to develop new regulation under the Police Act that prevents officers from using enforcement resources in simple possession cases.