VICTORIA — British Columbia's health officer is urging the provincial government to consider the decriminalization of people caught with illegal drugs as another step to stem the overdose crisis.
Dr. Bonnie Henry says it wouldn't be the same as legalization, like Canada did with marijuana, but would be an alternative to criminal charges for drug users.
In a new report, Henry says the drug laws contribute to a deep-rooted shame by people with addictions and that shame stops people from getting treatment.
Illicit drug overdoses began increasing in the province in 2015 and a year later the provincial government declared a public health emergency, but more than 1,500 died last year.
Henry says decriminalization is a way to protect people from highly toxic street drugs and would allow police to help people living with addictions connect to the support they need.
Abbotsford Chief Const. Mike Serr, who also co-chairs the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police's drug advisory committee, says in a statement that supporting drug users is best done through the public-health system, not the justice system.
Serr says arresting people for possession won't decrease the demand for street drugs.
"We need to increase treatment, prevention and education strategies to effect real change."
B.C.'s coroner has said the arrival of the powerful opioid fentanyl is the main cause of the dramatic increase in deaths, and it was detected in more than 80 per cent of the overdose deaths in 2017 and 2018.
Dozens of safe consumption sites popped up around the province in response to the crisis and the government made naloxone kits available without a prescription to help reduce deaths.
Henry's report says the combined impact of numerous interventions has been shown to have averted 60 per cent of all possible overdose deaths since the declaration of the public health emergency.