Drug decriminalization in B.C. ‘an invitation to rejoin society’, says former Yellowknifer

A former Yellowknifer and longtime advocate for drug decriminalization says a recent decision to allow possession of minor amounts of drugs in B.C. is a move in the right direction for harm reduction — albeit a small one.

On May 31, the federal government announced adults in B.C. will be able to possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA starting next year. The move had the support of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

Garth Mullins, an adviser to the B.C. government representing the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, says the decision won’t stop people from dying, since it doesn’t address safe supply, but it’s the first step toward treating drug use as a health matter instead of a criminal one.

“If you’re a drug user … you’re criminalized, or the police are chasing you and hassling you. You get locked up, you’ve got to hide what you do, obtaining your substance has to be done in secret. Using it has to be done in secret. It makes everything more sketchy and dangerous,” Mullins told CBC’s Loren McGinnis on The Trailbreaker Thursday morning.

“Real decriminalization is an invitation to rejoin society, and that’s huge. This could be a little step toward that.”

Mullins grew up in Yellowknife before moving to B.C. An activist for decriminalization and safe supply, he is open about his own drug use — having spent much of his adult life using heroin, he’s now on methadone. Access to a legal, prescribed drug that doesn’t make him overdose or get arrested “radically” changed his life, he said.

He first started going to meetings about decriminalization in 1998.

“All these years later, to see important ministers and Parliamentary members and journalists, and everybody talking about this word ‘decriminalization’ … that’s kind of heartening,” he said.

But problems remain with the B.C. plan, he added. The amount people can carry is low, meaning many drug users won’t benefit; and, of course, possession remains illegal everywhere else in the country.

‘A template to follow,’ says N.W.T. MLA

Some politicians in the N.W.T. have argued for years that the territory should treat addictions as a health issue instead of a criminal one by decriminalizing personal possession of drugs.

On June 1, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said the B.C. decision gives the N.W.T. “a template to follow,” though he noted decriminalization isn’t a silver bullet.

“I know many people feel uncomfortable with the idea. They view it as sanctioning behaviour they feel is immoral. They view it as lawlessness that will lead to harm. But that is simply not true,” Johnson said in the Legislative Assembly.

“If we’re going to truly help those who are addicted, we must do what actually works and follow the evidence.”

Rylund Johnson is the N.W.T. MLA for Yellowknife North and a longtime advocate for decriminalization. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

During an exchange with Johnson, Health Minister Julie Green said her department is watching what happens in B.C. and said she would take his suggestion to look at the application B.C. made to the federal government that led to the decision there.

“We’re very interested in seeing what comes of this in B.C.,” she said.

Johnson has been vocal on the issue for years and brought it up throughout the latest sitting of the Legislative Assembly. On March 10, he spoke about the overdose deaths of two people that led to a public health advisory about cocaine laced with opioids.

He pointed to Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001 and now has a drug-related death rate four times lower than the average in Europe.

During that session, Justice Minister R.J. Simpson said the government’s position is that it would need to work with Indigenous governments on the issue.

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