BC’s ‘single pillar’ drug strategy bound to fail, says former US presidential advisor

Written By Kevin Sabet

“It should be easier to get help than it is to get drugs.”

–Kevin Sabet

Following in Oregon’s footsteps, the government of Canada granted British Columbia’s request to reverse decriminalization of hard drugs in the province. Oregon and B.C. learned the hard way what happens when a government rushes to decriminalize before a comprehensive drug strategy is in place.

Just 16 months into the three-year pilot project allowing personal possession of illicit drugs and the ongoing use of fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine in hospitals, parks, beaches, and other public spaces has grown to become a political liability in an election year.

In April, B.C. asked the federal government to recriminalize public drug use. Health Canada granted the request last week.

Let’s be clear about the province’s policy: the formal decriminalization of drugs exemption was really the legalization of drug use in public spaces. Elected government officials have denied this was the intent, but it has been the consequence of B.C.’s de-facto “single pillar” harm reduction drug strategy.

Rather than investing across the four pillars of prevention, treatment/recovery, enforcement and harm reduction, the province focused all its efforts on harm reduction.

Why did it take so long for B.C. to reverse course?

Problematic public drug use ‘not unexpected’

Since the exemption was implemented in January 2023, police have lamented they could no longer do anything about people openly using drugs like meth and fentanyl.

“There have been several high-profile instances of problematic drug use at public locations, including parks, beaches and around public transit,” BC Association of Chiefs of Police President, Fiona Wilson, testified before the federal parliamentary health committee last month.

“There have been concerns from small businesses about problematic drug use that prevents access by customers or negatively affects operations,” added Wilson. 

BC RCMP Deputy Commissioner Dwayne McDonald noted to the same committee that overdose deaths and rates of death had not reduced under decriminalization. While Rachel Huggins, deputy director of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called the negative fallout from decriminalization “unintended, but not unexpected.”

Nurses complained their work environment was compromised by the dangerous use of these drugs within hospital walls.

“Decriminalization doesn’t mean that consumption should take place in a hospital setting,” said Adriane Gear, BC Nurses’ Union president.

Even local mayors, like Brad West of Port Coquitlam, openly complained they could not take their kids to the park because of all the public drug use. West said “the last straw” for him was when a resident told him about their child’s birthday party at a park, where someone using drugs refused to leave the area. 

Advocates pushed for decriminalization

The three-year decriminalization pilot project followed decades of advocacy from groups like the Vancouver-based Drug User Liberation Front (DULF), which operated what they called a “heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine compassion club” for several years in Vancouver.  In effect, this activist group operated a drug-dealing program for its “members.”

DULF was one of several drug user groups financially supported by the province until public pressure forced the government to withdraw funding last fall.

Compassion clubs are a natural outgrowth of B.C.’s harm reduction-centred strategy resting on the fundamental belief that we should “meet people where they are at” until they are ready for treatment.

But this philosophy is deadly. 

Drug use is pleasurable. It changes the brain and turns our most vital organ into the body’s most selfish one. Despite the negative consequences, the brain keeps wanting more and more drugs.

Waiting for people to want to get help can be lethal. Already, more than 575 British Columbians have died of overdose in the first three months of 2024 – that’s six overdose deaths a day. 

Coerced treatment works

Research shows coerced treatment works just as well as voluntary treatment.

Recognizing that many individuals with a substance use disorder are resistant to treatment (and stopping drug use), the criminal justice system can act as a catalyst to get people the help they need and deserve. Instead of going to jail, they’re offered support to move on a path toward recovery. Many people complete treatment to avoid incarceration.

In Vancouver, individuals going through the drug court have a recidivism rate of about 23 per cent, versus 50 per cent in the general prison population.

An evaluation on the Justice Ministry’s website notes drug courts are “an effective method of reducing future criminal behaviour compared to traditional responses” and that there is “clear support for the use of drug treatment courts as a method of reducing crime among offenders with substance abuse problems.”  

None of these programs are perfect, but they’re better than the hands-off treatment approach that has so far guided B.C.’s attempts to overcome the drug crisis. 

People deserve hope. It should be easier to get help than it is to get drugs.

And we should of course meet drug users where they’re at, as the harm reduction saying goes, but we shouldn’t be content to leave them there.