BC decriminalization doesn’t go far enough, says woman who lost son to overdose

Leslie McBain was thrilled to learn that BC can move forward with its plans to decriminalize small-scale drug possession. But until there’s a safe supply of legal drugs in Canada, she says people will continue to die.

McBain’s son, Jordan Miller, died of an overdose in 2014. Now she advocates for harm reduction policies through Moms Stop the Harm, a network of families affected by drug addiction and drug-related deaths.

On Tuesday, the group saw a small win as the federal government granted BC’s request for an exemption to federal drug laws. Under the three-year pilot program, the province will decriminalize the possession of up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.

But McBain says capping decriminalization at 2.5 grams means a lot of drug users will still be vulnerable. The province and advocates had asked the feds for a 4.5-gram threshold, but Health Canada said it needed to strike a balance between health and safety.

Here is part of McBain’s conversation with As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington.

At today’s announcement, Vancouver’s mayor, Kennedy Stewart, called this historic change and groundbreaking, and he said he felt like crying. What was your response?

I feel the same. It’s historic and it is groundbreaking. It doesn’t go far enough. But, you know, it is a huge step in the right direction.

The downside to me — the more sad part — is that the threshold of 2.5 grams that is offered in this exemption is not enough, and it may have unintended consequences.

You wanted 4.5. The government is offering 2.5. What difference does that make, really?

If people who are dependent have a higher tolerance, they need more drugs. And so a 2.5 threshold, if people are going to obey the law, will make it so that those folks have to go out more often to access … a legal amount of a drug. And they may have to go out four times or five times a day. This increases their vulnerability to a very bad batch, to something that could possibly kill them.

And it happens. As you know, five to seven times every day, somebody dies [of a drug overdose] in this province. So that’s one of the downsides of having this very low threshold.

What do you think Minister [of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn] Bennett is being so cautious on this? What’s the problem with going to 4.5? What message were you being told?

The party line is that it’s a matter of public safety, which I actually don’t understand what that means in terms of people who use drugs. They’re using the drugs anyway, so they are in an unsafe situation just having to access a toxic, poisonous supply of drugs.

And I have great respect for Minister Bennett, but if she wants to talk about public safety, then we need a safe, regulated supply of drugs for people who are dependent, who need it.

Carl Miller and McBain show a photo of their son, Jordan Miller, who died of an opioid overdose in 2014. (Health Canada)

Last year, more than 2,200 people died from drug use in BC. That’s, as you said, like five to seven people a day. How many lives will this move save?

None, actually. It won’t. It goes a great deal to reduce the stigma, to have the public understand a little bit more about drug use. People should not be criminalized for their use of drugs, and so this is helpful in informing the public.

But the only thing that is going to save lives, as I say, is the safe, regulated supply.

Decriminalization does one thing, and it keeps people with this very small amount of substance from being involved in the criminal justice system. This is a good thing. It’s definitely a good thing. But it hasn’t gone far enough.

I think we can only go forward from this point. They say it’s a temporary measure for three years. I think a lot of research will be done in three years and the people who are making the decisions will see that, you know, nothing bad happens when you decriminalize people who carry drugs. And so hopefully they would then, over time, be able to increase the threshold.

Critics will say, though — and often do in these particular situations — that decriminalization will encourage drug use. What do you make of that argument?

That’s a false assumption. What the research shows is that when … people are able to access a safe supply, [when] people are decriminalized, drug use actually goes down. And this is true in Portugal and it’s true in Switzerlandfor instance.

I don’t know why it would increase drug use. If people want to access drugs for whatever reason, whether it’s to relax on the weekend or experiment or because they’re dependent, they’re going to access the drugs no matter what.

WATCH | New rules for small-scale possession of illicit drugs in BC

New rules for small-scale possession of illicit drugs in BC

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett announced that adults in British Columbia will be allowed to possess small amounts of some illicit drugs starting next year — a move that marks a dramatic shift in Canada’s drug policy.

The provincial minister [of mental health and addictions]Sheila Malcolmson, said today [that] shame and fear play a part in these drug deathsand [that] many people … use alone, and they die alone. And you’ve had the pain of loss yourself. What do you want people to understand about the stigma around drug use?

One of the analogies that we use quite often is the one of alcohol and prohibition on alcohol, and how when that didn’t work, the governments, in their infinite wisdom back in the early 1900s, they legalized and regulated production of alcohol.

And I hope that people realize that people who use drugs are no different than people who use alcohol. Addiction is addiction. So we need to move away from thinking of drugs as this, you know, evil devil substance, and just say, OK, this is another substance.

The stigma around it has been for a century. And if we can’t see our way to drop that stigma, then we’re not doing our job as a society.

But I think the decriminalization part of it is a step in the right direction to reduce that stigma.

That change is set to begin at the end of January of next year, and it’s going to run for three years. Ottawa says it’s going to monitor how it goes, do some more research, adjusting depending on what happens. Minister Bennett says it’s only the beginning. But how difficult it is for you to wait to see these changes, to see what will actually happen?

It’s hard. There’s no question about it. It’s very hard.

But it’s been very hard for six years for us. Since the declaration of a public health emergency in 2016, we’ve been fighting hard for policy changes.

It’s like turning the Titanic. You know, it’s just slow. It’s so slow. And because of the hesitancy and the slow way it progresses, people die.

It doesn’t matter to dead people what the thresholds are, or what decriminalization is. The only thing that is going to help … is to get safe supply for people who are dependent.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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