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Backlash against drug decriminalization and safe supply ‘terrifies’ B.C.’s exiting chief coroner

CBC News · Posted: Feb 01, 2024

Lisa Lapointe says significant policy change at all levels of government is needed to save lives. Since she became B.C.’s chief coroner in February 2011, Lisa Lapointe has seen a lot change.

In 2016, the province declared a public health emergency over drug poisoning deaths. In 2023, B.C. decriminalized the possession of up to 2.5 grams of some illicit drugs for personal use.

Changes have also been made to allow people who use drugs to be prescribed regulated alternatives to street drugs in what is termed safe supply.

And yet, the number of people dying of toxic drug deaths continues to climb — a record high of 2,511 in 2023, for a total of more than 14,000 deaths since 2016.

Through the years Lapointe has tracked each of those deaths, releasing regular, data-driven reports on the public health emergency.

Through it all, she says, the evidence is clear that keeping people alive must be a priority. She says to do that, efforts at destigmatization, decriminalization and prescription must continue, despite the sense from some that these changes are doing more harm than good.

In a year-end interview back in December, B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Rustad argued prescribed drugs are “not safe,” and an emphasis should be put on arresting and prosecuting dealers. Similar sentiments have been expressed by members of the federal Conservatives.

B.C.’s NDP government says it is committed to moving forward with a three-year decriminalization pilot project.

Premier David Eby, meanwhile, said last week that he has a “fundamental” disagreement with Lapointe, who has called for non-prescription safe supply of drugs.

The growing backlash in some corners “terrifies” Lapointe, who says toxicology reports make it clear that illicit drugs are responsible for the vast majority — roughly 85 per cent — of toxic drug deaths, not diverted safe supply.

She says she is worried there is a move toward once again driving users into “back corners, basement suites [and] back alleys … where people die alone.”

Lapointe spoke to CBC host Gloria Macarenko on CBC’s The Early Edition.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you reflecting most on right now?

I’m certainly reflecting on the genesis of this crisis. In 2012 when we first saw illicit fentanyl show up in post-mortem toxicology results and had absolutely no idea that that would result in the devastation and the death that we’ve seen over the past seven-and-a-half years. The number of families that have been impacted.

Year-by-year comparison of toxic drug deaths in B.C. (B.C. Coroners Service)

And I will leave knowing that as a coroner service, we have done our very best to bring forward information, to provide the data, the evidence, to support meaningful responses.

But I also leave with a real sense of sadness knowing that unless we see some significant policy change at all levels of government, the death toll will continue to climb. And that makes me very sad and very worried.

Why do you think David Eby is having such a hard time accepting the recommendation [of expanding safe supply]?

I think it’s very difficult for politicians [to encourage] something that, for the public, feels radical.

It feels radical to give substances to people who are already suffering from the effects of those substances. 

But when we explain to people … The idea behind the prescribed or non-prescribed model of safer supply is to keep [people] alive.

Let’s stop supporting the organized crime-driven illicit drug market, provide a safer supply to those at risk … and then have, in the background, building that prevention, treatment, recovery [infrastructure] that currently just doesn’t exist. 

Where is the data?

The decriminalization pilot — while incredibly important — [it’s] really difficult to get meaningful data at this stage.

I think there are critics of decrim who say, ‘Well look, it’s been in place a year, the deaths didn’t go down.

Well, decriminalization is one year into a three-year pilot after decades of criminalization and policies that have supported – sadly, unknowingly or without meaning to — the illicit drug trade.

So where people say, ‘Decrim’s a failure,’ we can’t measure one year of decriminalization against decades of criminalization. That’s where this problem started.

And I don’t think we can measure the success of decriminalization until we address the toxic supply because people are still dying every day because the supply is toxic.

But politicians are attacking this whole process.

It’s funny how we want to revert back to what is familiar.

Criminalization is what we did for decades. It wasn’t effective, but somehow we feel like that’s got to be the better way.

It didn’t work and that’s where we need to have that separation of politics and medical evidence and look at what actually works.

To abandon that, to go backwards to a system that was never effective, has led us to the crisis where we are today … That’s a knee-jerk reaction. It’s an emotional reaction and it isn’t driven by science.

It’s unfortunate.

But we rely on the science, and then hopefully over time the public and the politicians will see that, and we will see that meaningful change.

Because if we don’t, and I’m going to be really honest, if we don’t see wide-scale change, then next year the new chief coroner will be standing up and saying there were another 2,500 deaths.