Tuesday, February 07, 2023

BC's decrim experiment: One giant step for governments, one really tiny step for fixing the problem

Credit: No Name 13, Pixabay

The BC government doubtlessly had to work very hard to get the OK from the federal government for a three-year test of illicit drug decriminalization. 

It's a good thing to have fought for, even if the pilot is so hamstrung with exceptions and rules that it can't help but be of minimal impact. We are so lamentably, tragically overdue to move on this problem of poisoned street drugs killing thousands of British Columbians every year that virtually any glimpse of a different future must be welcomed with enthusiasm. 

But just to be clear, the vast majority of people who use illegal drugs will not benefit from this pilot. Nor will it stop the endless tide of deaths.

That's not to say that any move toward decriminalization isn't to be treasured. But we do need to go into this teeny, temporary change in our senseless and destructive drug policies with the understanding that it's a flea on a fly compared to the complex issues that are actually driving BC's illicit-drug miseries.

The pilot will have no impact, for instance, on the disturbing reality of some 2,300 British Columbians dying year after year due to a toxic drug supply, almost all of whom are men

What the pilot will do is instruct police not to charge people if they find them carrying small amounts of four specific drugs, none of which can have been cut with any other drug. (Alas, anywhere from 20 per cent to more than half of BC's confiscated illicit drugs in 2022 were found to be cut with benzodiazepines, so there's a rather major stumbling block right there.)

The toxic drug crisis, on the other hand, is about illegal drugs being cut by sellers with all kinds of other stuff because it's cheaper and more readily available, and people dying because virtually nobody knows what they're getting anymore. 

Fixing that big issue is about figuring out how to ensure people know what they are purchasing and how to use a particular drug combo safely if it's that or nothing. It involves a full understanding of how drugs come into our province, and how and why they are altered once here. 

That would require consultations with the importers and the sellers, as would have happened long ago were it any other product. But an opportunity has been missed again, with sellers dismissed in the usual way as "predators" in the government's latest messaging.  

One of the most significant insights we've had into the workings of BC's bustling illicit-drug industry comes from a lone seller featured in a research paper published in the January 2021 BC Medical Journal.

"When asked about selling a bad batch of drugs and people overdosing, he said, 'If it’s a bad batch, I’ll probably still sell it because I don’t want to waste it and lose profit. That’s just the truth and the reality,'" noted the researchers who interviewed the anonymous John Doe.

A small exemption on possession charges will have no effect on the illicit-drug industry. As John Doe points out in the paper, the industry is a masterful example of unfettered capitalism that can quickly turn any disadvantage into opportunity, including the supply-chain disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nor will the pilot do much to move people toward treatment who weren't already well along on the arduous journey of wanting treatment.

Being charged with drug possession is arguably pretty low on the long list of worries for British Columbians trying to access treatment, starting with how impossible it is to find it in the first place for anyone without major resources; the reality of having to wait months for a spot while magically staying "clean"; an absence of other problems like poor mental health; and the ability to put your life on hold with no support for weeks of residential care.

Even John Doe understands that people use drugs for complex reasons that are often rooted in trauma and pain. “It would be hard to treat someone with just their addiction and not treat their mental health," he told researchers. 

Now there's the kind of guy whose insights would be useful if the day ever comes when we get serious about all of this.

I wouldn't even expect that the pilot will stop many people from being charged with possession. The small amount of drugs a person can possess under the pilot - 2.5 grams - and the requirement for those drugs to be pure, are pretty much impossible scenarios in the current drug scene. 

But as Premier David Eby rightly notes, it's vital to do something. 

“When you talk to parents who have lost a kid who thought they were taking party drugs at an event, and end up taking fentanyl and dying, you understand how serious this issue is and how it crosses partisan lines and how we all need to work on solutions,” he told CityNews last week after federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilevre called the Downtown Eastside a hell on earth and said all the usual uninformed stuff about drug use.

And if this pilot turns out to be the way to crack the door open on decriminalization overall, hurrah. Until then, it's just the smallest of stepping stones at the edge of a raging river.

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