March 27, 2020 

The Honourable John Horgan, Premier of British Columbia; 

The Honourable Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General; 

The Honourable Adrian Dix, Minister of Health; 

The Honourable Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions; 

cc. Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry; 

Re: Ending the Criminalization of People Who Use Drugs to Stop Overdose Crisis in the Context of COVID-19 

Dear Ministers,  

Decriminalization of illicit drugs is necessary to stop the ongoing public health emergency and epidemic of overdose and overdose deaths. BC New Democrats voted unanimously in favour of Safer Supply and Decriminalization at the BC NDP Convention on November 23, 2019. The successful resolution called upon the Provincial NDP government to “…exercise its full jurisdictional power, including all available provincial legislation, policy levers, and ministry resources necessary to ensure that people who continue to face significant and unnecessary risks of preventable overdose deaths are not criminalized and forced to turn to a dangerous, unregulated, and criminal-controlled source of illicit psychoactive substances.”1 

The resolution followed a call-to-action by Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, in April 2019: “[T]he province cannot wait for action at the federal level, immediate provincial action is warranted, and I recommend that the Province of BC urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use.”2 

Action on decriminalization and the provision of a safer supply of all drugs (opioids, stimulants, benzodiazepines cannabis, alcohol) is critical to stem the tide of the overdose crisis and now for people to physically distance themselves and self-isolate as safely as possible in the face of COVID-19. Many continue to use an unregulated supply of drugs at home alone while others are in crowded public spaces without basic necessities such as access to adequate hand washing. The drug supply is changing and is being disrupted by the rapid changes to the global economy. People who use drugs are increasingly vulnerable to an unregulated supply of toxic substances and in the context of COVID-19, accessing this toxic supply further puts the community at risk. Without being able to move freely in the community, people are at risk for unplanned and potentially dangerous episodes of withdrawal. People who must panhandle or engage in sex work to survive, and seek out their supplier in the community, put themselves and others at risk for spreading COVID-19. 

We applaud the actions by the Government of BC to release clinical guidelines for the broader provision of medications to people at risk for COVID-19, and which includes the federal government’s recent exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines must not be interim and must be rapidly expanded to other jurisdictions.  

We call on the BC Government to make further, rapid changes to save lives: 

  • Continue your work and ensure that your recent actions on Safe Supply are not temporary but rather continue to move us closer to the decriminalization of all people who use drugs; 
  • Immediate funding for low-barrier opioid maintenance options such as tablet vending machines which would increase physical distancing to prevent COVID-19 spread; 
  • Waive requirements for physician visits and urine screenings; 
  • Scale up community-based managed alcohol programs; 
  • Scale up community-supported detox; 
  • Amend the Police Act to instruct both municipal police forces and the RCMP to end the enforcement of simple possession of illicit drugs; 
  • Robustly fund services by and for people who use drugs including prevention, high-quality treatment options, and peer-run service delivery. 

Access to safe, predictable drugs is treatment. The efficacy of abstinence-only treatment is unsupported by the research and the lack of a high-quality continuum of treatment options has promoted a regime of shame and failure that has significantly contributed to the ongoing public health emergency and to the suffering of our family members, friends, colleagues and community members. 

The BC Government has taken emergency action to save lives in the face of a public health emergency with the opening of overdose prevention services (OPS). You have now taken action to support the provision of a safer supply of drugs to people at risk for COVID-19. By doing so, you are prioritizing the lives of structurally vulnerable people over drug laws which continue to cause harm. In your positions of power, you must continue this action to curb the dual epidemic of ongoing overdose events and deaths, and the novel coronavirus. It is your duty to immediately follow the lead of your own party delegates, the Provincial Health Officer, and a growing list of organizations and supporters to do everything in your power to end the regime of criminalizing drug possession in the Province of British Columbia.  

Sincerely,

South Island Community Overdose Response Network (SICORN) 

SOLID Outreach Services 

AVI Health and Community Services 

Canadian Drug Policy Coalition 

Pivot Legal Society 

Moms Stop the Harm 

Overdose Prevention Society, Vancouver 

BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors 

BC Nurses’ Union 

Harm Reduction Nurses Association 

Canadian Association for Safe Supply 

Pacific AIDS Network 

Vancouver and District Labour Council 

Peers Victoria Resources Society 

ANKORS (AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society)  

Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism  

HepCBC 

Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria 

Jeremy Loveday, Victoria City Councillor  

Sarah Potts, Victoria City Councillor  

Ben Isitt, Victoria City Councillor  

Dr. Bernie Pauly, Scientist, Canadian  

Institute for Substance Use Research 

Dr. Bruce Wallace, Professor, School of Social Work, University of Victoria 

Dr. Cecilia Benoit, Scientist, Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research 

Dr. Mark Tyndall, School of Population and Public Health, UBC; MySafe Project 

Dr. Kiffer G. Card, Health Systems Impact Fellow, Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research 

Alain Vincent, Owner/Manager STS Pharmacy 

Jarred Aasen, Founder/Manager Lantern Services; Pharmacist, STS Pharmacy 

Andrew Ledger; President CUPE local 1004 

Dr. Kelli Stajduhar, Professor, University of Victoria  

Ashley Mollison, MA, Equity in Palliative Approaches to Care, University of Victoria 

Kara Whitlock, BSW, Equity in Palliative Approaches to Care, University of Victoria 

Cathy Crowe, Street Nurse, Toronto 

Diane McNally, Board of Education Trustee, SD61 Greater Victoria 

Mary Drohan, BSW 

Jennine Downie, BSW 

Erin Donald, MSN, RN 

Gordon Harper, founder, Umbrella Society for Addictions and Mental Health 


1 This resolution was supported by the BC Federation of Labour, the Health Officers’ Council of BC, the BC Centre on Substance Use, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, BC’s Provincial Health Officer, and Vancouver Coastal Health’s Chief Medical Health Officer.

2 Dr. Henry’s report received support from the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and BC Centre on Substance Use.

  

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