Stressing that “Canada is in the midst of a public health emergency,” when it comes to overdose deaths in the country, nurses in BC are calling on the provincial government to decriminalize drug use.
Noting that there were over 11,500 overdose deaths between January 2016 and December 2018, and 4,460 deaths in 2018 alone, members of the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of British Columbia (NNPBC) and the Harm Reduction Nurses Association (HRNA) said in statement that as health professionals, “we support the immediate decriminalization of people who use drugs in BC.”
This, they said, “is a critical way forward to address the overdose crisis and to promote greater health, wellbeing, justice, and equity at an individual and population level.”
It’s also “an essential step to remove barriers to care and support, reduce stigma and discrimination, improve health and socioeconomic outcomes, and work toward a more just and compassionate society.”
The group’s statement comes after various other measures have been implemented in BC to try and stem the rising tide of overdose deaths.
Three years ago, the province declared a public health emergency in response to the rising number of overdose deaths.
As a result, harm-reduction interventions – such as the distribution of take-home naloxone kits, the implementation of overdose prevention sites, supervised consumption sites, funding for local Community Action Teams, and access to opioid agonist therapy – were scaled-up in BC.
And while the group said a recent study shows an estimated 3,030 (2,900-3,240) deaths were averted by these interventions, it also points out that the “absolute numbers” of overdose deaths haven’t changed.
These findings, they said, support “the need to look for interventions that address the root causes of this overdose crisis: an unregulated and unsafe drug supply and the criminalization of people who use drugs.”
The groups said it is also strongly encouraging the BC government “to develop a new model that focuses on linkages to health care and social services.”
This model, they said, “should use already existing opportunities within Provincial Policing Regulation to redirect police resources away from the criminal enforcement of simple drug possession, and toward community-based and evidence-based health and social programs.”
Not supported in the statement is the use of “administrative penalties as a replacement to criminal charges.”
This is because administrative fees will add to harms and continue criminalization and do little to no good in reducing harms,” the group said.
A 50-page report released in April of this year by BC provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry also called for drug decriminalization and outlined approaches that could be implemented in BC to stop arrests and incarceration of people who use drugs.
Henry’s call for decriminalization “echoes similar calls from top health officials in other Canadian jurisdictions such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver,” the group said. “It is also consistent with resolutions passed by members of the NDP and the Liberal Party last year – and a private member bill (Bill C-460) tabled in the final days of the House of Commons.
However, upon its release, the report was “immediately rejected” by BC public safety minister and solicitor general Mike Farnworth, according to the group.