CMHA BC’s Statement on Bill 34: Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act
VANCOUVER, BC – (October 19, 2023): As an advocate for decriminalization, harm reduction, safe supply, and as an organization that has overseen the opening of a significant number of substance use treatment beds in the last few years with BC Government support, the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division (CMHA BC) would like to address recent public narratives and the political climate shaping BC’s new legislation aimed at curbing public drug use.
We are discouraged to learn of the BC government’s recent proposal to restrict public consumption of illicit drugs only 8-months into the decriminalization of personal possession of small amounts of some controlled substances. There has been no evidence to suggest that public use has increased in this time; however, homelessness and visible poverty are on an upswing across BC, adding ongoing complexity to the toxic drug crisis.
CMHA BC is deeply concerned about the stigmatizing narratives driving this proposed legislation and the misdirected outrage focused on decriminalization in the context of much deeper social and structural challenges that contribute to substance use, such as a lack of housing. We must focus on root causes, not symptoms.
While CMHA BC acknowledges the complexity of balancing public use with perceptions of community safety, we are concerned that the proposed legislation goes too far in prohibiting drug use in most public spaces, effectively reversing the intention of, and any progress made with the province’s three-year pilot project on decriminalization.
Recent data shows that there has been a significant reduction in possession offences and drug seizures since decriminalization was introduced in BC. However, there has not been sufficient time to assess any meaningful reduction in stigma and the isolation associated with illicit drug use, which results in a higher likelihood of people using alone and experiencing a fatal overdose. As of August 2023, data shows that 80% of illicit drug-related deaths in BC occurred indoors. While the decriminalization policy remains, its potential benefits are undermined by criminalizing the use of included substances in public spaces.
Evidence shows that criminalization has many stigmatizing effects. Such policies can make individuals who use drugs feel unsafe when seeking life-saving interventions and treatment services. Individuals may experience a fear of arrest and harassment by police, judgment by healthcare professionals, and/or child apprehension, among other impacts.
While the decriminalization policy remains, preventing police from enforcing federal criminal law, the proposed legislation allows police officers to use their discretion to enforce provincial laws and restores police powers to seize illicit drugs and arrest individuals, which could still result in fines and/or imprisonment.
Commendable efforts have been made by the BC government to expand harm reduction services (e.g., access to Naloxone, drug checking, etc.) and the availability of safe consumption spaces, of which there are currently 47 sites across the province. However, access to these services remains limited, especially in rural and remote communities. It is crucial to note; the proposed legislation does not include additional funding for safe consumption spaces, where BC has seen just one death in over 4.2 million visits.
Should this legislation pass, CMHA BC implores the government to use its powers to ensure that there is a minimum standard of safe consumption spaces available in every community, in line with the Ministerial Order first enacted in 2016 when the toxic drug crisis was deemed a public health emergency. Specifically, there is a pressing need for safe inhalation sites, as smoking is quickly becoming the most common mode of consumption.
As a mental health organization, we have a moral imperative to emphasize the consequences that may result from this proposed legislation and the ongoing stigma that is driving it. We urge all levels of government to ensure a public health approach to tackling this crisis, one that is based on principles of both harm reduction and treatment. We also urge the media and community leaders to resist simplified and stigmatizing narratives that dehumanize people who use drugs.
Since 2016, more than 12,000 people in BC have tragically lost their lives to toxic drugs, and the devastating losses to communities continue. People who use drugs are fellow members of our communities who deserve dignity, respect and access to the services they need for health and wellbeing. They do not deserve to be pushed out of sight, out of mind, and left to join the seven people we lose to toxic drugs every day in BC.
To prevent the continued harms of this crisis, the BC government must expand evidence-based supports for people who use drugs, including safe consumption spaces, publicly funded treatment and recovery services, and important interventions that address the social determinants of health such as safe, accessible, and affordable housing.
1. Province of BC (Sept 2023). Building a mental health and substance use system of care [Powerpoint]. Retrieved on Oct 18 from https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/health/mental-health/building_a_mental_health_and_substance_use_system_of_care_snapshot.pdf
2. BC Coroners Service. (Sept. 2023) Unregulated Drug Deaths – 2023 Summary (data up to end of August). Retrieved October 6, 2023 from https://app.powerbi.com/view?r=eyJrIjoiYTdiOGJlMmYtZTBmMC00N2FlLWI2YmYtMDIzOTY5NzkwODViIiwidCI6IjZmZGI1MjAwLTNkMGQtNGE4YS1iMDM2LWQzNjg1ZTM1OWFkYyJ9
3. Province of BC (Sept 2023). Escalated drug poisoning response actions. Retrieved on Oct 18 from https://news.gov.bc.ca/factsheets/escalated-drug-poisoning-response-actions-1#:~:text=From%20January%202017%20until%20the,and%20survived%2C%20and%20one%20death.
4. BC Coroners Service. (Sept. 2023) Unregulated Drug Deaths – 2023 Summary (data up to end of August). Retrieved October 6, 2023 from https://app.powerbi.com/view?r=eyJrIjoiYTdiOGJlMmYtZTBmMC00N2FlLWI2YmYtMDIzOTY5NzkwODViIiwidCI6IjZmZGI1MjAwLTNkMGQtNGE4YS1iMDM2LWQzNjg1ZTM1OWFkYyJ9
5. BC Coroners Service. (Sept. 2023) Unregulated Drug Deaths – 2023 Summary (data up to end of August). Retrieved October 6, 2023 from https://app.powerbi.com/view?r=eyJrIjoiYTdiOGJlMmYtZTBmMC00N2FlLWI2YmYtMDIzOTY5NzkwODViIiwidCI6IjZmZGI1MjAwLTNkMGQtNGE4YS1iMDM2LWQzNjg1ZTM1OWFkYyJ9