The co-chair of Port Alberni’s Community Action Team (CAT) calls decriminalization “a small step in the right direction,” but there is still much work to do to combat the toxic drug crisis in the Alberni-Clayoquot region.
The Province of British Columbia announced earlier this year that possession of small amounts of illicit drugs are now decriminalized in a pilot project that will continue until 2026. Drug users will be allowed to carry up to a total of 2.5 grams of opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl, as well as crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA (also known as ecstasy).
Substance users who carry up to 2.5 grams will no longer be arrested or charged, and police will not seize their drugs. Illegal drugs will still be prohibited for youth under 18, on school grounds, at licensed child-care facilities and at airports. The pilot project is limited to B.C.
Ron Merk, the co-chair of Port Alberni’s Community Action Team (CAT) says the most important aspect of decriminalization is reducing stigma around drug use, so people can reach out for help to get services like counselling and treatment.
“The reason it’s so important is it removes stigma from people that are using substances,” said Merk. “Right now, people tiptoe around. It hopefully is going to change the culture in our community.”
The BC Coroners’ Service recently announced that 2022 was the second deadliest year of B.C.’s toxic drug crisis on record, with preliminary results estimating that 2,272 people died from poisoned drugs across the province last year.
In the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, there were 26 deaths—an increase from 21 in 2021.
Merk says that Port Alberni’s CAT could see by June that 2022 was going to be a particularly bad year in the region. There are multiple reasons for the increase in deaths, but one of them is the toxicity of the drug supply itself.
“When you source illicit drugs in the community, you have no idea what’s going to be in them,” he said. “Over the past couple years, there have been several components added to drugs—for instance, benzos—and they make it so much more toxic.”
The most recent coroners’ report on drug toxicity deaths shows that the majority of those dying (70 percent) were aged 30 to 59, and 79 percent of them were male. The majority (84 percent) of illicit drug toxicity deaths occurred indoors.
“It’s not who we think it is,” said Merk. “There’s this perception in the community that the people who are dying are the people out on the streets. In reality, it’s men who are working, family men, and they’ve used alone.”
The biggest single harm reduction strategy, said Merk, is to make sure people aren’t using alone.
There are a number of tools available for drug users to make sure they are not using alone, including The Brave App and the Lifeguard App, or by calling the National Overdose Response Service (1-888-688-6677). Merk also hopes that decriminalization will reduce the stigma of drug use, so that people will feel more comfortable reaching out for help to stay safe while using.
The second important component of decriminalization, said Merk, is making sure police departments are playing a more positive role—offering support and referrals to treatment, instead of “just handcuffing” people with substance use disorders.
But there is still more to do, said Merk. British Columbia Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe has said that the province needs a safer supply of drugs to reduce harm, as well as drug-checking services, Naloxone and overdose prevention sites. But the province also needs a more robust treatment plan, said Merk. The ultimate goal, he added, should be a model where people with substance use disorders can receive instant referrals to treatment—instead of waiting for weeks.
“That’s the biggest stumbling block right we have right now,” he said. “I would love to see a detox centre here [in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District] that was publicly funded. We are going to have people that are not quite ready to go into the healing journey, but what we need to do is be able to provide them a regulated safer supply until they are.”
A safe supply, controlled by the province’s medical system, will also break the cycle of the illicit drug supply, he added. Right now, people with substance use disorders can only find their supply on the street from dealers. Dealers still need to be dealt with “from a criminal perspective,” said Merk, but decriminalization is meant to help people who have substances for their own personal use.
Port Alberni’s CAT was formed after the province declared a public health emergency around the overdose crisis in 2016. The CAT meets monthly, bringing together stakeholders representing all parts of the community to respond to the needs of those most at risk of overdoses. The team is guided by four main pillars: harm reduction, stigma reduction, social stabilization and networking within the community.
“It’s such a complex problem,” said Merk. “This is not an easy solution. If it was an easy solution, it would have been solved decades ago.”