Dr. Evan Wood, executive director at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, releases a report calling for the regulated sale of heroin at a news conference in Vancouver on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

Dr. Evan Wood, executive director at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, releases a report calling for the regulated sale of heroin at a news conference in Vancouver on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)

Overdose Crisis

End drug prohibition to curb overdose crisis: Abbotsford advocate

Doug Smith with Drug War Survivors says removing criminal aspect would curb the crisis

An Abbotsford advocate says the federal government needs to bring an end to prohibition after another devastating year in the overdose crisis, including 40 suspected drug overdose deaths in Abbotsford.

Although the city saw a 23 per cent decline in suspected overdose deaths in 2018, compared to 2017, Doug Smith, harm reduction co-ordinator with Drug War Survivors, hesitates when asked whether he has felt the decline.

“I’ve lost so many friends in 2017, in 2016 and until now, even this year, too. It is getting better, but it’s still tragic,” Smith said. “It could be so much better.”

RELATED: Overdose deaths drop 23 per cent in Abbotsford

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With no end of the overdose crisis in sight, the dialogue is shifting to solutions previously championed only from the fringes. In recent months, a movement to end prohibition has gained serious momentum, including a study published Thursday calling for a regulated, safe heroin supply.

The B.C. Centre on Substance Use published a report from researchers and people with lived experience calling on B.C. to implement “heroin compassion clubs” offering a regulated supply of untainted heroin.

They states that such an option could not only halt the overdose crisis, but take a stab at the money laundering issue in B.C. as well.

“Prohibition has enriched organized crime groups to the point where recent reports suggest as much as $5 billion annually in drug and organized crime profits are laundered through Vancouver-area real estate in recent years,” the report’s executive summary reads.

“From an evidence-based public policy perspective, fentanyl adulteration in the illicit drug supply is a predictable unintended consequence of drug prohibition.

“Specifically, the same forces that pushed the market away from relatively bulky opium towards heroin, a more concentrated opioid that was easier to transport clandestinely, have continued to push the opioid market to increasingly potent synthetic opioids, including a range of fentanyl analogues.”

The views of health officials are increasingly matching what advocates have long been saying.

“The more you tell somebody they can’t do something, the more they’re going to do it,” Smith said.

Smith said it can be counterproductive to otherwise successful messaging that urges people to never use alone to ensure someone is around to revive them in the case of an overdose. With prohibition, users are often “forced to use alone and forced to hide,” he said.

RELATED: B.C. opioid overdoses still killing four people a day, health officials say

A true end to prohibition is not likely anytime soon, however, with criminal and drug law falling under federal jurisdiction.

Even after a Liberal Party of Canada convention in which party ranks voted overwhelmingly in favour of policies that would decriminalize all drugs, the federal government has kept its distance from any such policy.

But provincial officials have been increasingly advocating policies edging on an end of prohibition, including a report from provincial health officials hinting that they are looking at similar policies to that proposed by the BCCSU.

“That’s what my office is working on – how we can have de facto decriminalization of people who use drugs in B.C., recognizing that is one of the huge challenges that is leading to people using street drugs and dying and using alone,” said provincial health officer Bonnie Henry.

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