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Decriminalization meant to save lives in toxic drug crisis: Whiteside

Mental Health and Addictions Minister speaks to Metro Vancouver mayors committe on public drug use
B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside steps away from the podium after speaking during a news conference in Vancouver, on Monday, January 30, 2023. Whiteside was at the Metro Vancouver’s mayors council on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023 to discuss the issues around public drug use. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

If people have a broken arm, they know what to do: go to the emergency department, get the arm set in a cast, heal and then possibly get some physical therapy.

But what about when that injury or recovery isn’t physically obvious? That’s something Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said she thinks about a lot in the province’s toxic drug crisis.

“Part of the challenge with people who have addiction issues is that they don’t know what’s broken and it’s often a real requirement to be able to get to a place where you say I’m not prepared to live like this anymore and I need help, in order to make that first step. Some people will make that first step many, many, many, many times,” Whiteside told the the Metro Vancouver Regional District’s mayors committee on Wednesday (Sept. 6).

The minister was at the meeting to discuss support for people and the issue of drug use in public spaces, which comes as several municipalities in B.C. have either approved or are considering public drug use bans. Nelson’s ban went into effect this week, while Port Coquitlam’s ban was approved in June.

READ MORE: Nelson City Council’s ban on drug use in parks now in effect

Whiteside said she’s been taking the time this summer to speak with mayors and communities across the province about some of the challenges they’re facing with the toxic drug crisis and the impacts of decriminalization that have “been either a perceived or real, in some cases, increase in public drug use that is in areas where there typically hasn’t been.”

She said the province is working toward new legislation around some of the issues this fall, noting that some communities have been connecting with the Public Safety Ministry.

“The nature of this crisis requires that we actually work across the whole continuum. We have to keep people alive in order to connect them to care and support and to treatment and then to a recovery pathway that is going to be sustainable for those individuals who are facing, who are dealing with, living with a chronic and relapsing condition.”

Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West acknowledged his municipality did pass a bylaw banning public drug use as a a way to “respond to a situation that we were experiencing in our community that we felt needed to be addressed.”

He said the city didn’t feel comfortable waiting until legislation was in place, so council took action.

West said it wasn’t ideal or his preferred way, “but from our perspective it was something and we had to do something.”

But West wondered what more could be done. He pointed to his stepbrother who was prescribed opioids for a hockey injury and then became addicted and went to jail. Ultimately, his stepbrother has been sober for two years, but West said the turning point for his brother was jail.

“What worked for him isn’t going to work for the next person … That’s probably one of the things that makes this so challenging is particularly at government, we look at what’s the solution? What is the fix?”

It’s been about seven months since small amounts of illicit drugs were decriminalized in B.C. as pilot project to curb toxic drug poisonings in the province.

Based on the latest data from the BC Coroners Service, July was the 13th consecutive month more than 190 people died from the toxic and unregulated drug supply in B.C. Between January and July 2023, at least 1,455 deaths were attributed to toxic drugs. It’s the largest number ever reported by the coroner in the first seven months of a calendar year.

READ MORE: What to know about B.C. decriminalizing possession of drugs for personal use – starting today

READ MORE: 198 people died in B.C. in July due to toxic drug poisonings

Whiteside said the province’s decriminalization initiative came about as a response to calls from law enforcement, public health, frontline physicians and some municipalities. She said the project’s intention was not to contribute to “a notion there is now some sort of unfettered public drug use.”

She added she thinks in some cases some people who were using in very hidden ways before have started to come out “because there is less fear associated with their ability to use drugs.”

“I appreciate some of the challenges with that but, again, the intention of this policy is really about setting up conditions where we can connect people to care and overall as part of the work that we’re doing to try to save lives in the face of a toxic drug crisis that is unrelenting, that is changing everyday, that is incredibly volatile and that poses a profound challenge to our communities and our whole province.”

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart pointed to his daughter’s struggles with mental health that led her to a psychiatric ward years ago. She’s now working as a psychiatric nurse in Nanaimo, but he said not everyone has the same ability to get the help his daughter did. He claimed one of the women who was in the ward with his daughter recently died due to the toxic drug crisis.

“This is a crisis, a massive crisis and my daughter wasn’t the one that was lost, but someone else from that psych ward was lost last week and they have parents too.”

READ MORE: No evidence decriminalization has led to increase in public drug use: B.C. addictions minister

Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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