'Symbolic move with zero investment': Penticton recovery groups call out province's drug decriminalization implementation

Drug policy just 'symbolic'

Casey Richardson

Calling it a "symbolic move with zero investment," Penticton recovery and overdose awareness groups are frustrated by the provincial government's recent implementation of a policy decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs.

In an effort to tackle the ongoing opioid crisis, the new policy was introduced on Tuesday to "help reduce the barriers and stigma that prevent people from accessing life-saving supports and services."

Drug users will now be allowed to carry up to a total of 2.5 grams of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, as well as crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.

Penticton operators are none too pleased with the announcement, saying it clearly missed the mark with what they've been asking for.

"My initial thoughts are that we are focusing on the wrong things to help people. I understand it's a symbolic gesture to take away the stigma, but we still have people that can't get into detox beds, we still have people waiting six weeks to two months for treatment beds," said Jerome Abraham, executive director for Discovery House, a Penticton recovery resource society.

"I think we're really headed in the wrong direction if all we're focusing on is making it easier to do substances. I'm not saying that people should be punished, or it should be criminalized. But that's all we seem to be focusing on is helping people maintain use."

B.C.'s application to the federal government called for 4.5 grams allowed for personal possession, but police requested one gram before a decision by Ottawa to allow a cumulative 2.5 grams.

Desiree Surowski, cofounder of Penticton Area Overdose Prevention Society (P+OPS) said decriminalization as it is, isn't really decriminalization because the threshold is so small.

"They didn't actually listen to the thresholds that advocates and drug user groups were actually asking for," she said.

"Decriminalization isn't enough, without safe supply, without legalization, without better access to resources for people using substances. It has to be all or nothing in my mind, personally, because now the government can kind of throw their hands up when it doesn't get better, and say, 'See, we tried.' But they're appeasing people without actually putting in the necessary policies and services."

Year-end statistics published by the BC Coroners Service show the Interior Health region saw 388 people die of an overdose in 2022, making it the worst year ever for toxic drug deaths.

"We saw what the numbers were for last year. Do I think that this decriminalization is going to impact that a huge amount and get us to where we need to be? No," Surowski said.

"It's upsetting eight years in to still be going through this and seeing the press conferences of the statistics and government officials apologizing and saying, 'We're trying doing this,'" she added.

"You're not doing enough, and I don't need your crocodile tears anymore."

Surowski also has a concern about what this means for police interaction with drug users.

When an officer comes across someone in possession of the legal amount, they will be offering an information card about health and social supports, including local treatment and recovery services, if requested.

"That's putting the police in a position that they've never really been in before. It's changing the dynamic between substance users and police and I think it's muddying the waters there. I think people have a lot of strong views about their interactions with police and I just think it could end up being really messy with the relationship between substance users and police officers, RCMP," Surowski said.

"We want grassroots organizations to repair damages from colonialism and create more safe Indigenous spaces, and by the RCMP having an access to resource referral, I think it's just another colonial system, referring them to resources. And to me, that seems like a step in the wrong direction. "

The province said they have trained police for upcoming changes, including a phase one webinar for all officers in the province, and a second phase of training focusing on a health-focused approach to substance use will launch this spring.

"These half measures, I think, do more for stigma than is helpful. So it's a complicated answer because any change in progress is good progress. But when we look at the big picture, are we getting to where we need to be fast enough? And the answer is no," Surowski said.

Even as Discovery House has grown over the years, adding more recovery beds and independent living homes, Abraham explained that they, along with the other houses and shelters, are simply not enough, and the addiction crisis is treated differently than other health issues.

"We don't have the resources to offer people a way out," he said. "So just continuing to kind of park people at manageable use, I don't think it's effective. I don't think that's going to change much. I don't think you're going to see a significant reduction in drug overdoses or deaths."

"It's really a symbolic move with zero investment from the government. So really, it's disappointing that it's all we're doing."

The pilot project will continue until Jan. 31, 2026, after a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Surowski said she wants safe supply implemented because she believes it will fix the overdose crisis.

"We can remove the toxic supply. The government can remove the toxic supply, that's what people need to understand is they have the power to do that. And they are choosing not to." she said.

"Our long-term goal is to stop losing people we care about and unfortunately, organizations like mine can come in and do as much hard work as they possibly can. But until we remove the toxic supply, people will continue to die."

She argued that by implementing safe supply, the money spent on first responders and emergency care would drop off and could instead be used to enhance all the other resources the province is in need of.

Abraham feels that implementing safe supply is not a full solution and the provinces need to fund the other end of the harm reduction continuum.

"I think it's an easy out. I don't think that there shouldn't be a safe supply, but I think just doing that and saying, 'Hey, look at the solution we're doing,' is the same as years ago when the Health Authority solution was to put everybody on to replacement therapy."

According to the province, people have been accessing a prescribed safer supply since March 2020, when they introduced the first phase of the program. From March 2020 to November 2022, approximately 11,670 people were prescribed safer supply opioid medications.

"We saw what kind of happened when they implemented their version of safe supply two years ago. Only 10 per cent of substance users across BC had access to it and it wasn't their DOC, meaning drug of choice," Surowski said.

"We know the language that surrounded that afterwards, [people saying] 'See, the government is doing safe supply, and people are still dying.' But that's not safe supply as safe supply is intended."

Abraham continues to point to programs in Europe that have implemented full solutions, like Portugal, where decriminalization policies and harm reduction programs have proven to lower drug use and deaths.

"In Portugal, you can get a treatment bed right away, if you want," he said. "I'm just speaking from my own experience, most of the people that are using substances would like a way out of that and currently, we don't have the resources to offer people a way out."

The question for both Abraham and Surowski remains as to why the government continues to place half measures and leave out the resources to help people heal. Abraham is sick of the cycle.

"I'm tired of losing people because we're not investing in the long-term solutions that we know work."

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