Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Former addict believes drug decriminalization will not be as effective as anticipated in Victoria


As of January 31st, small amounts of certain drugs are permitted to be carried by drug-users for personal use as a part of BC’s effort to decriminalize people who use formerly illegal substances. 

In BC, up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA can now be carried and will not be confiscated nor will the person be arrested for possession. 

During the press conference announcing the implementation of decriminalization, Jennifer Whiteside, BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, as well as two other medical professionals with backgrounds in addictions, spoke as to how this will help substance users.

“We know criminalization drives people to use alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply, using alone can be fatal,” said Whiteside. 

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving supports.”

“This is a vital step to get more people connected to the services and supports as the province continues to add them at an unprecedented rate.”

Despite this move being anticipated by many as an important harm reduction approach to saving lives from being lost to toxic drug supply, some believe this is a step in the wrong direction. 

A former drug addict’s outlook on decriminalization

Bobby Reid, a former drug addict who was experiencing homelessness in Victoria until 2018 said he thinks this will empower substance users to continue using drugs rather than seeking treatment.

“So far, since [decriminalization came into effect], I talked to a few of my friends down there, and they’re having the time of their life,” Reid told Victoria Buzz. 

“They’re allowed to walk around with 2.5 [grams] of anything they want — treatment and detox are the furthest thing from their minds right now.”

“Some think that since they decriminalized it, more people will go to treatment, that’s not the case at all.”

Supply for drugs has also become easier to access for Reid’s friends in Victoria who continue to use drugs — dealers are now more easily able to carry drugs intended for sale. 

Reid explained that dealers will now carry the 2.5 grams they intend to sell broken down into points — slang for a small increment of a substance.

“They’ll break it down into points, the 2.5 [grams], and if they get caught with it, they’ll just tell police, ‘this is how I do it, I do this much every time so I’ve broken it down for my fixes.’”

Reid said that 2.5 grams is a lot more than most non-drug users would think.

“A homeless person can’t afford 2.5 grams of heroin everyday,” said Reid. “That’s like $300.”

“What you’ll get is about 15 to 20 dollars per point, which you’ll get five out of a gram, or some guys will get six or seven out of a gram.” 

For the average unhoused drug user, not seeking treatment or detox, 2.5 grams will last about a day, maybe two depending on the person and the substance they are using, according to Reid. 

After overdosing three times, Reid knew it was time to seek detox, treatment and a new housing situation that wasn’t in Victoria. 

Reid said that treatment, although accessible, can be hard to get into. When he sought help with his addiction and went through detox for the last time, substance users who wanted to detox had to use a phone-in system in order to get a bed, which Reid believes is deeply flawed. 

“What they do is they refer you to detox, you phone them and they say, ‘phone every day and we’ll see if we have a bed for you,’” explained Reid. 

“That just doesn’t work, some people don’t have phones.”

Reid, who hasn’t used drugs in five years, had to try to detox then seek treatment several times before he was able to muster the willpower to push through and commit to treatment, which he believes saved his life. 

After attending detox at the Royal Jubilee Hospital, he gained access to a government-funded treatment facility in Maple Ridge and from there he went to second-stage housing before moving to Kamloops and becoming independent.

“That was five years ago and I haven’t looked back,” said Reid. “My life is completely different, a complete turnaround.”

When asked how BC can implement policy and spend money on aiding those with drug addictions in a meaningful way, he said detox should be more easily accessible and there should be more encouragement to go through the motions he benefited from so deeply. 

“What they need to do in cities like Victoria and Vancouver is they need to have an office where a drug addict can walk in and say, ‘I want to go to detox,’ and have a seat,” said Reid. “They don’t have to get on the telephone.”

“They need to be face-to-face with somebody to say you’re going to detox, because this phoning in every day is for the birds.”

Currently, at the Royal Jubilee Hospital’s detox unit, there are 21 beds and a referral is needed. Once they receive a referral, the substance user is put on a waitlist to be contacted once a bed becomes available. The hospital’s policy is also that individuals must be able to move about independently and manage their own basic self-care. 

These are barriers to many drug users seeking detox who need it immediately.

Victoria Buzz asked Grant McKenzie, Communications Director of Our Place Society if he saw any positives or negatives of the decriminalization of substance users carrying less than 2.5 grams of drugs.

Our Place Society’s viewpoint

McKenzie said that this may benefit ‘weekend warriors’ who use drugs recreationally to confidently get their drugs tested to ensure they aren’t laced with anything toxic, but the decriminalization will have little effect on the street population.

“The street population is not as concerned with that, they’re not getting their drugs tested all that much,” said McKenzie. 

Prior to the decriminalization, police were not often arresting houseless people for possession, but they would confiscate the drugs they found on Our Place clients.

“They might have confiscated the drugs which could have made it harder on that person,” McKenzie told Victoria Buzz. “Now that person who might be going into withdrawal, they might have to revert to criminality to replenish their drugs.”

“So with it being decriminalized, maybe if they did get pulled over for any reason, their drugs might not get confiscated.” 

“That could be a positive in the sense of a person not facing criminal charges and not having to find some way to replace their drugs.”

Victoria Buzz reached out to Saanich Police to get their position on the decriminalization implementation and how they anticipated it would affect Greater Victoria, and they shared the following statement:

“Our officers are fully informed of the process of the decriminalization rollout and will be professional and compassionate when interacting with persons found to be in legal possession of these controlled substances.”

Curtis Blandy

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