Time to change course on drug decriminalization says MLA

New drug approach needed

British Columbia is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, with overdose deaths reaching unprecedented levels and drug misuse continuing to ravage communities across the province.

This certainly is the case in Kelowna. I was downtown this past weekend, meeting constituents in the middle of the day and was confronted by two different individuals—on different streets and blocks—in the middle of pedestrian traffic of families and downtown residents who were completely incapacitated on drugs.

My heart was broken. Clearly these individuals need help — and treatment.

It was just a few weeks ago that I met with a constituent who was concerned about her son. While in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, she showed me the list of all of the “safe supply” drugs he was prescribed. She then put a photograph of her son in front of me, with him clearly in a drug-induced state of incapacitation and asked me, “Does this look safe to you?”

The mom told me he was kicked out of his group home, while still a minor, and was given a tent and a sleeping bag.

I thought to myself, is that the hope that we want to give her son? How could we send him onto the streets and simply say, “best of luck to you?”

These tragic scenarios underscore the urgent need for a reevaluation of (drug) decriminalization, which, despite it’s intentions to reduce harm and promote public health, has fallen short of addressing the complexities of addiction and societal impacts. Thus it has failed.

And it’s not just here that it is failing.

The situation in Oregon provides a critical lens through which B.C. can reassess its approach to drug policy.

Oregon made headlines for decriminalizing drug possession in a bid to shift the focus from criminalization to treatment and has recently taken steps to reverse the policy. The move came after observing a rise in drug use and related public safety concerns, signalling the outcomes of decriminalization might not always align with the anticipated benefits of reducing drug misuse and enhancing community health.

This pivot in policy by Oregon lawmakers serves as a cautionary tale for B.C., suggesting decriminalization alone, without sufficient support, treatment and enforcement mechanisms, will not effectively mitigate the drug crisis.

The parallels between Oregon's initial decriminalization efforts and B.C.’s current drug policy are striking. Both regions embarked on progressive paths with the hope of fostering a more humane and health-centric approach to drug addiction. Both are failing.

But Oregon is taking steps to change that, while the B.C. government is doubling down.

B.C. still has only 2,200 treatment beds funded in the 2024 budget. To put that number into context, Alberta has over 8,000. That means treatment in B.C. is not readily available, or it is very expensive if one chooses to seek private treatment.

If someone asks for treatment today, they are put on a significant waiting list. If they happen to be a minor, that list is even longer. That’s not how addiction works—it doesn’t wait.

B.C.’s strategy should evolve by considering the lessons learned from Oregon's experience. That involves stopping the decriminalization policy, ensuring it is replaced by robust support systems for those struggling with addiction, including increased access to treatment and recovery services.

Furthermore, the re-evaluation of B.C.’s drug policy must be informed by data, research, and a thorough understanding of the unique social, economic, and health-related factors that contribute to the drug crisis within the province.

B.C. stands at a pivotal moment, with the opportunity to redefine its approach to drug policy in light of the challenges and lessons observed in Oregon. We must admit that drug decriminalization and the current drug policy have failed. That requires bold leadership, a commitment to public health and a willingness to adapt policies in response to evolving evidence and community needs.

There are so many lives at stake.

My question to you is this:

Is it time to change trajectories in our drug policies?

I love hearing from you and read every email. Email me at [email protected] or call my office at 250-712-3620.

Renee Merrifield is the BC United MLA for Kelowna-Mission.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Renee Merrifield is the BC United MLA for Kelowna - Mission and Opposition caucus whip and critic for Environment and Climate Change, Technology and Innovation and Citizens’ Services. She currently serves on the Select Standing Committee on Education as well.

A long-time resident of Kelowna, Renee started, and continues to lead, many businesses from construction and development to technology. Renee is a compassionate individual who cares about others in the community, believes in giving back and helping those in need through service.

She values your feedback and conversation, and can be reached at [email protected] or 250.712.3620

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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