B.C.'s minister of mental health and addictions disagrees strongly with City of Vernon letter

Decriminalization rebuke

B.C.'s minister of mental health and addictions doesn't agree with Vernon City Hall on decriminalization of drug possession.

Vernon Mayor Victor Cumming wrote a letter to Minister Sheila Malcolmson in November on behalf of council, opposing the proposed decriminalization of simple possession.

The letter stated decriminalization "may result in unanticipated outcomes" and suggested it could lead to more open drug use in parks and public spaces.

"Decriminalization alone will not resolve the current crisis," the letter stated.

Coun. Kelly Fehr was the lone member of council opposed to sending the letter. He is a manager with Turning Points Collaborative Society, which deals directly with the under-housed and street population.

Malcolmson replied to Cumming's letter, stating: "Illicit drug poisoning has taken almost 8,000 lives in our province since the toxic drug overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency in April of 2016. Since then, British Columbia has taken a wide range of action, including increasing the availability of lifesaving initiatives such as the Take Home Naloxone program, access to medication-assisted treatment and prescribed safer supply, and expanded supervised consumption and overdose prevention services.

"We have also opened hundreds of publicly funded treatment beds and will open hundreds more. While these initiatives have saved lives, they are undermined by the continued criminalization of people who struggle with illicit substance use."

Malcolmson said the criminalization of drug users "contributes to the stigma associated with substance use and and has been shown to prevent many people from accessing the lifesaving support they need. Stigma also contributes to people using drugs alone, which is killing people in a time of accelerated drug toxicity. We also know the long-term impact a criminal record can have on things like obtaining employment and applying for/accessing housing, which often acts to entrench the problem."

The minister said decriminalization will better ensure those who use substances can access health and social services without fear and that drug laws are applied evenly and equitably across the province.

"We need to shift our approach and begin treating substance use as a public health challenge rather than a criminal act," she wrote.

On Nov. 1, B.C. became the first province to apply to the federal government to remove criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

"I recognize that your council has some concerns about this approach," said Malcolmson.

"A broad spectrum of partners and stakeholders played a vital role on the core planning table developing B.C.'s decriminalization framework, including three representatives for municipalities, along with Indigenous partners, health and social service providers, people with lived and living experience, law enforcement, advocacy organizations, and clinical and research experts.

"I believe many of the concerns you raised in your letter can be addressed in the next phase of work.... I appreciate that decriminalization in B.C. represents a significant shift in Canadian drug policy and that not everyone will agree with the move; but know that this and every other substance use policy and practice change that the province is undertaking is for the purpose of saving lives in the context of the illicit drug poisoning crisis. Nothing is more important than that."

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