On the week that marks five years since B.C. declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency, the Province has announced new measures being taken to address the ongoing issue, including steps towards decriminalization.
According to the B.C. government, it will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in the province, while boosting funds to expand overdose prevention services.
The government says decriminalization can help address the stigma that drugs have, removing the “shame” that can prevent people from reaching out for life-saving help.
“Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone,” said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Through provincewide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment.”
B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions says it has been working on an agreement with Health Canada in order to apply for a provincewide exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which establishes laws over simple drug possession.
The exemption is considering issues such as defining simple possession, determining allowable drug amounts and ensuring the readiness of law enforcement, health and social services to support decriminalization.
As part of the process to receive an exemption from Health Canada, consultation with Indigenous partners, peers, law enforcement, municipalities and public health officials is being planned.
“Decriminalization is one additional tool in B.C.’s accelerated overdose response plan that also includes harm reduction, prevention, treatment and recovery while building a system of mental health and substance use care,” notes the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.
In addition to seeking decriminalization, the Province is also boosting funds to secure recently expanded overdose prevention services for people at high risk of overdose provincewide.
The provincial government is going to invest $45 million over the next three years in order to “extend and enhance” the funding announced in August 2020 to support those services. The initial investment from the government into supports was $10.5 million.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is having devastating effects on people who use drugs – illicit substances are more toxic and people are struggling with increased isolation,” Malcolmson said. “Today, our government is committing to sustain and enhance services in every health authority to prevent overdose deaths and connect people to supports. There’s more to come as we continue building the comprehensive system of mental health and addictions care that British Columbians deserve.”
The government says this investment will allow health authorities to scale up regional overdose responses with expanded services, including inhalation sites to meet the growing need for this mode of consumption. Additional nurses will also be hired who can prescribe addiction treatment medications, in addition to social workers and peer support workers for outreach teams.
To date, 82 registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses have enrolled to complete their training to prescribe medications for opioid use disorder.
The funds from the province for overdose prevention services will be allocated to health authorities, which have the operational responsibility for planning and delivering services to meet the unique needs of their communities.
The government acknowledges that while there is more work to be done, overdose prevention services have had an effect. Last year, nearly 3,000 overdoses were survived at prevention services, with zero deaths recorded, according to the Province.
More information about provincial overdose prevention services can be found online here.