B.C. Premier John Horgan has strongly backed a call by national police chiefs to decriminalize simple possession of prohibited drugs.
Horgan said July 9 he is proud to see Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer leading the initiative, as B.C. struggles with the most significant street drug and overdose problems, and the province begins an inquiry into police grappling with mental health and addiction issues.
B.C.’s position as a Pacific Rim country has led to opioid addiction being declared a public health emergency more than five years, and Horgan said his government has done what it can since taking office in 2017 to provide treatment resources and set up a dedicated ministry of mental health and addictions. But with the federal Criminal Code forcing police to treat drug abuse and associated mental health disorders as a crime, the province is limited in what it can do.
“This fundamental question, that Adam Palmer, the Vancouver Police Chief and the head of the national chiefs outlined today, is where I believe we need to go,” Horgan told reporters at the B.C. legislature. “If not now, when? We’re in the midst of a global pandemic when it comes to COVID-19. In British Columbia that is further complicated by an overdose crisis which saw, last month, the highest monthly number of deaths that we’ve seen in a good long time.
“Anything that we can do to reduce the deaths and reduce the dependence, and quite frankly, to free up law enforcement to do other things, I support.”
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has also strongly advocated for a shift from criminal sanctions to a health-based approach to dealing with drug addiction. In April, Henry said the province can do more without Ottawa changing the Criminal Code.
“The predominantly criminal-justice-based approach to psychoactive substance use has given the overwhelming balance of power to law enforcement as a policy tool in the context of attempting to prevent harms from substances,” Henry wrote in a report issued April 24.
“If the intention of a prohibition-based system was to protect individuals from harms inherent to substance abuse, then this policy approach has significantly failed to achieve this goal at an individual or population level.”
Horgan emphasized that the federal government and has to lead the way, rather than B.C. further avoiding Criminal Code provisions through police discretion, prescribed opioid trials and supervised drug consumption sites.
“We’ve been doing our level best to reduce dependency, to create opportunities for those who have moments in clarity within their addiction, to be helped,” Horgan said. “I’ve made it clear to the Prime Minister where British Columbia stands.”