The BC Humanist Association is joining over 50 human rights, health and drug policy organizations in calling on key ministers in the federal government to immediately decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs in response to the twin crises of opioid overdoses and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter was started by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Pivot Legal Society and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition was sent to the federal Ministers of Health, Justice and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. It points out that they have the authority to issue an "exemption" to "any class of persons" from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, in the public interest. This can be used to exempt everyone in Canada from the section of the law that makes simple possession of drugs a crime.
The BC Humanist Association has said the "broad criminalization and the systemic racial effects of the War on Drugs are antithetical to Humanist values."
Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, it was long past time to end the failed War on Drugs. With the pandemic, it's even more urgent that public safety be put above Victorian puritanism. End criminalization, save lives.
The provincial government issued guidelines in late March that promised to provide people who use drugs in BC with a safe supply of prescription opioids as a way to reduce the risk of street drugs. The program doesn't tackle the underlying criminalization of drugs and overdose deaths spiked in March, with 113 people dying.
Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Director of Research and Advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network:
This is a step that can be taken today, without delay. By decriminalizing simple drug possession, we would be protecting the health of people who use drugs, preserving police resources and reducing unnecessary police interactions and contact. And importantly, fewer people would be held in detention. With a growing number of COVID-19 cases in prisons, it’s perverse to put more people behind bars where people are more vulnerable to infection.
Caitlin Shane, Staff Lawyer at Pivot Legal Society:
Decriminalization has long been an evidence-based measure that civil society has rallied for, but it’s even more urgent now in the context of this pandemic. It would lessen needless burdens on the legal system — both in prisons and courts of law — at a time when physical distancing is still one of the main public health recommendations for dealing with COVID-19.
Read the release from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
From the BCHA's Issues Summary:
Approved: August 13, 2018
Humanist values of personal autonomy and liberty are incompatible with the criminalization of activities that do not infringe on the health, safety or freedom of others. Further, the decades-long War on Drugs has resulted in the needless incarceration of many otherwise law-abiding citizens. This criminalization violates fundamental principles of justice, wastes public resources and disproportionately affects racialized and indigenous communities. Both the broad criminalization and the systemic racial effects of the War on Drugs are antithetical to Humanist values.
We are therefore supportive of moves to decriminalize the personal possession of cannabis and other drugs. We support instead taking a public health approach and putting more effort into tackling the systemic issues around substance use through education, harm reduction, rehabilitation and treatment. These approaches should be informed by the best available evidence and respect the fundamental legal rights enshrined in the Charter.