Skeena MLA Ellis Ross is calling on B.C. to come out with a “more fulsome” prevention plan to tackle dangerous drug consumption. He said B.C. moved too fast in announcing the decriminalization of the possession of 2.5 grams or less of illicit drugs.
“When I saw that decriminalization announcement come out I had to say something just because of my personal experience with it,” Ross said in an interview with Black Press. “I’ve had family and friends suffer and even pass away from it.”
Ross said the language around decriminalization and safe supply makes drugs such as heroin, cocaine and fentanyl sound less dangerous than they actually are. Words like ‘safe’ and ‘decriminalization’ downplay their deadly effects, he said.
Ross wants a bigger conversation around the harm caused by illicit drugs.
“I grew up around this and every First Nations leader knows this,” said Ross, who is Haisla and a member of the opposition BC Liberal Party.
“The terminology that we’re using has got to have more substance around it in terms of what it could do to you as a person, as a family and as a community.”
B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson told Black Press in an interview that the dangers of drug use and the importance of mental health care make up important messages given in schools.
“We are certainly not saying that drugs are safe to use. But we are saying if you are in trouble with addiction, we want you to reach out to the healthcare system, and that you do not belong in the criminal justice system unless you’re a drug dealer,” Malcolmson said.
“People are inside their own homes using drugs alone, hiding the challenges that they’re having from their family and friends, never having the opportunity to get connected to care.”
Malcolmson said decriminalization is for people over 18 years old who use drugs but the drugs themselves remain illegal.
“Trafficking remains illegal and police will be able to focus their efforts more on the drug dealers,” Malcolmson said.
“Police chiefs called for decriminalization. Arguably, we would not be here were it not for the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs, and the B.C. police chiefs that called for decriminalization. This is a long-standing call. This isn’t a new idea.”
Ross argued that youth don’t take age limits seriously.
He said that decriminalization of small amounts of drugs could make it easier for dealers to evade the law, adding that youth in particular need to be dissuaded from picking up potentially deadly habits.
“I don’t want the next generation of our youth growing up thinking that safe supply is a really good answer, or decriminalization is a good answer,” Ross said.
“These illicit drugs should not be an option for the next generation, it should not be an option for our generation. We’ve got to be honest about that with the people of British Columbia, especially our youth.”
Malcolmson said decriminalization “absolutely does not” make business easier for dealers.
“It allows more police focus on the drug dealers. It removes some of the petty crime and dangerous re-criminalization of people when their personal supplies are confiscated and need to be replaced,” she said.
Ross said the province needs to highlight the negative impacts of drugs the way they do with smoking, to stop people from starting in the first place and making people feel bad about the consequences.
“There’s no real campaign to say, this is what happens to you if you get addicted to crystal meth. This is what happens to you if you unknowingly take some illicit drugs or illegal drugs that are laced with fentanyl,” Ross said.
“The idea that somehow we shouldn’t have that conversation because we’re stigmatizing the people that are currently there is wrong. Don’t do it. You’re in for life a tragedy if you do it.”
Malcolmson countered that the province worked with health authorities, with provincial medical health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and with local governments to build its application to decriminalize.
“It’s all informed by people in health care and police (and) only applies to adults,” Malcolmson said.
She said because the new laws won’t be implemented until January, authorities will have time to prepare their approach.
“It is exactly that lead time which will push out both the police training and the anti-stigma messages — which are so important to prevent people from using drugs alone — because that is what’s killing people in the greatest numbers.”
Ross said that he’d like to see something concrete before the new policies take effect.
“I’m not getting any signals that there’s anything coming up to complement (decriminalization) and January 2023 is going to come up pretty quick.”
Ross said there should have been a debate at the B.C. legislature and more consultation with communities across the province. That would have resulted in a well-rounded and effective plan for the entire province, he argued.
“There are 87 MLAs in BC that could have brought their own experiences and their own opinions to represent their regions. It’s our communities that are actually weathering what’s happening on the streets,” Ross said.
“We could have hashed this out if we had a debate in the legislature, and actually went out and talked to the people of British Columbia. Then we could have all gone back as MLAs and explained it to our residents.
“At this point, we can’t tell our constituents what’s going on.”
Malcolmson said the opposition chose not to be engaged in the debate.
“The BC Liberals went through a long and extended leadership campaign where the word decriminalization was never mentioned once that we can tell,” she said.
“We are taking our advice from the BC Association of Police chiefs and from public health and from people with lived experience to add one new tool that’s fighting the toxic drug crisis.”
She said B.C. is adding hundreds of new treatment beds to the healthcare system, along with prescribed safe supply, while using tools such as the Lifeguard app to help prevent overdoses.
“Those are all things that the BC Liberals did not add to the healthcare system and I’m proud that we are.”
The province described the approved threshold of 2.5 grams as “a floor, not a ceiling,” meaning that police officers will have discretion when people are found to be in possession of larger amounts.
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