March 8th, 2021
Decriminalization and Safe Supply
Last year, Gord Portman saved two people in a house fire in Penticton. When he saw his picture in the local newspaper, he said to himself ‘Oh boy I need help.” Gord was addicted to drugs. So he turned to Discovery House, a local organization that helps men battle their addictions, and he now thanks Discovery House for saving his life.
Over 1300 British Columbians have died from COVID-19; over the same period, 1716 British Columbians have died because of the opioid crisis. And this is not just a big city problem happening in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. It’s happening across the province. Seventeen people have died in Penticton, 14 in Grand Forks.
There is a misinformed and very unfortunate view among many in our communities that these people chose that path and don’t deserve our concern. But these people were sons and fathers, daughters and mothers. They had a medical problem, not a criminal problem. Many have mental health challenges or became addicted to opioids through prescription drugs after an accident left them with crippling pain.
Thousands of them are being poisoned by drugs laced with fentanyl. How can we stop this carnage and do the hard work necessary to help people with addictions?
The war on drugs, with stiffer penalties and longer prison sentences, has been tried for 40 years and has failed miserably. We need a new approach, one that treats addiction as the health problem it is. This has been carried out with significant success in countries such as Portugal.
That approach has two main components: decriminalization and a safe supply. To bring people with addictions into programs that will help them, we have to convince them that we are there to help. Defining them as criminals is a huge barrier to creating that relationship.
So we have to decriminalize the simple possession of small amounts of drugs. The manufacture and illegal sale of drugs would remain a criminal act, so that we can go after the dealers that are truly behind the opioid crisis.
A safe supply program is endorsed by the police as well as community advocates and health care professionals. Bill Spearn, an inspector with the Vancouver Police Department’s Organized Crimes Section, says that the VPD “supports safe supply and treatment on demand.” He adds that safe supply would “not only save lives … [but] will also reduce crime, which addicts often resort to when they need money for a fix.”
Many community organizations have been helping people with addictions for decades. In Penticton, along with Discovery House, there is Pathways Addiction Resource Centre. Pathways has been working here for almost a half-century, and it was a surprise to hear that Interior Health was cancelling their contracts for addictions counselling and services, to bring those programs in-house.
While I have every confidence that the professionals at Interior Health can carry out this work, I think there are aspects of that mandate that are best carried out by a group such as Pathways, that is not only a step outside government bureaucracy but has such a valuable history with this work. I’ve talked with Sheila Malcolmson, the BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, about this issue and hope that some solution can be found that maintains funding for Pathways so that they can continue to help people with addictions. Gord Portman was recently honoured with a bravery award by the Royal Canadian Humane Association. I thank him and the people at Discovery House who saved his life, and all those who work hard every day to help people with addictions return to their families.