BC’s Overdose Crisis and Decriminalization: A Turning Point for Our Nation
On International Overdose Awareness Day, I’m reminded of the letter I penned earlier this year discussing the insights BC could adopt from Portugal’s model of drug decriminalization.
When Portugal embarked on their brave journey in 2001, treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal one, the world took notice. And now, as BC forges ahead with decriminalization, the rest of Canada is watching, ready to learn from us. We have a unique opportunity to pave a positive path for the rest of our nation.
Some have referred to decriminalization as a “largely symbolic policy measure in the face of an unrelenting crisis.” As we move forward, it is crucial to remember that our mission must center on those most vulnerable, using whole-system and evidence-based approaches to make meaningful change.
It's no secret that BC's journey so far has had its challenges. In June 2023, overdose deaths increased by 17% compared to 2022. July 2023 added another 198 deaths to the growing list of fatal overdoses year-to-date. With this year's overdose numbers aligning closely with last year's, it's clear that our provincial strategy needs refinement.
Moreover, recent data from the BC Center for Disease Control  highlights a distressing truth: overdoses are the primary cause of death for those aged 10 to 59 in BC. Yes, you read that right – children as young as 10 are dying of overdoses. These numbers underscore the urgency of redirecting our focus towards foundational solutions, prioritizing vital prevention, treatment, and recovery services, with a sharper focus on youth. The future of our nation depends on the well-being and prosperity of our younger generation. As they grapple with this crisis, our responsibility is to provide an environment that not only supports their recovery but also ensures their growth into resilient adults.
I have said it before and will say it again, drawing insights from countries like Portugal can offer us a clearer roadmap. In forming our strategy, imagine piecing together a puzzle: the first step is to assemble the corners and borders, setting the foundational framework. Only with this foundation can the more intricate and central pieces fit seamlessly. In the case of BC’s overdose crisis, while decriminalization is a central piece, it’s evidence-based treatment, recovery, concurrent mental health crisis intervention and sustainable funding that form the foundational framework. Before decriminalization can find its place, the framework of our strategy must be firmly established.
The nation is observing, and with that comes a unique opportunity for us to lead the way and set a gold standard for drug policy in Canada. By learning from other jurisdictions that have ventured into decriminalization, we must develop strategies that optimize outcomes and mitigate unintended consequences.
The challenge that lies ahead is undeniably massive, but with the right approach, we can begin to craft a BC model that champions both public health and social justice, benefiting not just our province, but the entire nation. As we mark International Overdose Awareness Day, let's again spark conversations about the need to develop a whole-systems and evidence-based approach that safeguards our communities and sets the nation on a path to success.
- Chief Constable Neil Dubord