Liberals non-committal as B.C. premier joins calls for drug decriminalization amid overdose spike

B.C. Premier John Horgan has joined a growing chorus of voices calling for the federal government to decriminalize drugs, as overdose deaths reach grim new heights in his province during the pandemic.

Horgan sent a letter Monday to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for the decriminalization of small, personal amounts of drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. In the letter he said it is time to accept that drug addiction is not a problem that can be solved through the criminal justice system.

“Criminal prohibitions are ineffective in deterring drug use and criminalization of drug possession leads to both individual and systemic stigma, and discrimination that prevents people from seeking services,” he said.

Decriminalization would not make hard drugs legal, like with marijuana, but would instead allow police officers to issue tickets or divert a user to an addiction program. Selling, trafficking, importing or producing the drugs would still remain a crime.

B.C. saw its worst ever month for overdose deaths in June, with 175 people dying, a 130 per cent increase over June 2019. Overdose numbers have been on a steady rise throughout the pandemic and Horgan said the scale of the tragedy is enormous.

“Overdose continues to be the leading cause of unnatural death in British Columbia and life expectancy at birth continues to decline in the province largely due to this health emergency.”

Horgan said the issue is about more than just the grim statistics and called on Trudeau for immediate action.

“We are losing our family members and our friends. Our neighbours and our colleagues. We must do more.”

In a statement from Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office, the Liberals said they were cognizant the pandemic had made a bad situation worse, but did not commit to any kind of decriminalization.

“This crisis, now intensified by the pandemic, continues to be one of the most serious public health threats in Canada’s recent history, and our government remains committed to a compassionate approach to address it,” reads the statement.

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