David Dukhart eats his breakfast in downtown Nelson on a cold morning. He had a difficult night sleeping outside, the temperatures dropped to -16 C, and right now his focus is on staying warm and filling his belly.
The 58-year-old, who is homeless, has used drugs since he was just 16. He started out with cocaine, and as the years and health problems added up he now mostly relies on methadone and Ritalin, medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Dukhart also takes fentanyl, the drug that is largely responsible for more than 11,000 deaths in British Columbia since the provincial toxic drug crisis began in 2016.
As of Jan. 31, B.C. will decriminalize personal possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit opioids, crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.
Dukhart shrugs at the mention of decriminalization. He doesn’t know what, if anything, it will mean for him. But the crisis, he says, can’t get much worse.
“Anything’s better than the way it was. It’s getting better, it’s changing.”
Federal Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett and her B.C. counterpart Jennifer Whiteside described the three-year pilot program during a news conference Monday (Jan. 30) as a historic step in addressing the crisis. The BC Coroners Service said Tuesday that 2,272 people died due to illicit drug toxicity in 2022.
Although harm-reduction advocates are cautiously optimistic that decriminalization will address the stigma faced by substance users, they expressed concerns about how police will enforce the new rules.
Provincial officials said training launched for B.C. police in December included a webinar focused on how to identify 2.5 grams of various substances. The RCMP has made that training mandatory, but not all of B.C.’s 13 municipal forces have followed suit.
An addictions ministry spokesperson said two-thirds of B.C. officers have completed the training, which relies on police making judgement calls about the amount of drugs a person possesses based on observation. Police will also provide pamphlets with information about local harm-reduction services, and later this spring take further training that emphasizes how they interact with users.
The addictions ministry declined a request by Black Press Media to make police training materials public due to “security and privacy concerns.”
Garth Mullins, an organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and host of The Crackdown podcast, doesn’t believe decriminalization will lead to trust between substance users and law enforcement. The less interaction, the better, he said.
“Decriminalization for drug users is about no more cops and jails and courts. No more getting fired for your job because you have a charge on you, no more getting your kids taken by the state because you have a charge on you. It’s about freedom from criminal penalties.”
Stigma and safe supply
Tiffany Parton, executive director of the BC Association of Chiefs of Police, acknowledged the stigma of law enforcement is an obstacle and that there is a desire for change.
Possession charges, she added, have already been dropping annually. There were 876 British Columbians charged with possession under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 2021, which was down from 1,647 in 2020, according to Statistics Canada.
Parton believes law enforcement is ready to meet the new rules, but isn’t sure the province has enough adequate health services such as overdose prevention sites to pair with decriminalization.
“The big issue remains a health issue and there’s still resources that are required on the mental health and the complex care side. While we believe that we are ready, we are also still somewhat concerned that there are pieces on the other side that aren’t. So we’ll have to navigate as we go.”
Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society executive director Sarah Blyth said she hopes decriminalization also leads to a safe supply that includes drugs like heroin that has been tested for fentanyl.
B.C.’s safe supply program offers opioid agonist therapy drugs, or pharmaceutical alternatives such as methadone and suboxone, that are meant to be used along with a treatment program. But advocates have criticized the service for not meeting users’ needs.
“We continue to be in an emergency,” said Blyth. “We continue to lose people every day. It is continuously the saddest thing I could ever imagine to happen and it feels like these types of things shouldn’t happen in the world.”
The news conference led by Bennett and Whiteside did not include any speakers from drug user groups or front-line advocates, which Mullins criticized as tone deaf.
“Decriminalization is our domain. We fought for it for 25 years, it’s our demand. But they didn’t invite us to the press conference. They didn’t tell us what it was about or anything. They invited the cops. So we were spectators to the thing we fought for for a generation.”
There are few precedents for what B.C. is attempting.
Portugal, which decriminalized possession and use of illicit drugs in 2001, was mentioned by Bennett and Whiteside as an example where it has been effective. In the United States, Oregon decriminalized small amounts of all drugs in 2020.
But it’s too early to say how decriminalization in B.C. will be considered a success or failure by Health Canada in three years.
B.C. addictions ministry spokespeople said that data on health outcomes, interviews with users and public perception feedback will be provided to the federal government. Bennett and Whiteside later said there are plans for public website that will provide new data every three months.
If the federal government measures decriminalization’s success by how many substance users are dying or receiving treatment, Mullins said, the pilot will likely be viewed as a failure.
“Unless we do something real on safe supply, people are still going to be taking toxic drugs and overdosing and dying.”