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Rob Shaw: Messy drug decriminalization experiment marred by shifting policies, unhelpful data

Can B.C. prove its controversial drug program works if it keeps changing the rules and failing to track key metrics?
The B.C. government is asking Ottawa to re-criminalize drug use in public spaces halfway through a decriminalization pilot.

If you launch a highly controversial new program, collect sparse data about its performance and then radically alter the parameters more than one-third of the way through, is it still possible to determine at the end if what you’ve done has been successful?

That’s what many are wondering on decriminalization in British Columbia, in the wake of Premier David Eby’s attempt to re-criminalize drug use in all public places.

Assuming Ottawa even grants B.C.’s request, the province will still have more than a year and a half left in a three-year pilot project that is supposed to be being rigorously studied but will have dramatically changed well into the experiment.

“It would be nice to know what the data says,” said Opposition BC United Leader Kevin Falcon.

“That was something that the federal government asked this premier and this government to commit to doing when they moved forward with this reckless experiment over a year ago. Unfortunately, as the auditor general points out, they have the data, they're just not sharing it.”

B.C. does submit quarterly updates to Health Canada on decriminalization. But the most recent submission, dated February, is not particularly enlightening.

Visits to overdose prevention and safe consumption sites are up since decriminalization, as are use of drug testing services and distribution of take home naloxone kits — but they were all rising steadily at similar rates in the three years prior to decrim, and don’t appear correlated at all, according to the submission.

The use of opioid agonist treatment — methadone or suboxone to mitigate withdrawal symptoms — has remained stable, which tells us little.

The only direct metrics come from police, who report a 97 per cent drop in drug seizures under 2.5 grams compared to the four-year average — hardly surprising considering the explicit point of decriminalization was to order police to stop seizing people’s drugs and arresting them.

Much of the original rationale for the program was to reduce the stigma felt by drug users. Yet the province does not track stigma in its quarterly updates to Ottawa. The only glimpse comes via annual surveys of a small group of people that, due to lag, will barely provide any comparable data before the pilot is over.

All this while overdose deaths continue to be at near-record rates.

It’s hard to see how B.C. is in a position to prove or disprove the effectiveness of decriminalization, especially if the pilot project is confined to private residences following Eby’s reforms.

“Our focus really is going to be on, are we breaking down the barriers that prevent people from accessing care and reaching out for help?” said Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside.

“That continues to be, overall, the primary objective.

“So, looking to see increases in the numbers of people reaching out through whatever the pathway is, whether it's through their interactions with police, whether it's through accessing directly to health authorities, to the access central line in Vancouver Coastal for example, through the HelpStartsHere website, continuing to monitor that and really wanting to see that number of people reaching out increase.”

Falcon argued reducing stigma on drug use is not even a worthwhile goal.

“Actually I think it's important there be some stigma associated, not with the drug users but with drug use,” he said.

“Because we don't want our kids to see drug use normalized in the province of British Columbia. That's not a good thing. One of the ways we got young people to stop taking up cigarette smoking is we stigmatized it, we said you're not allowed to smoke in restaurants, or in office buildings, or on beaches or in public spaces, and that brought down the rate of youth smoking

“So too, with drugs, we should follow the same approach and say that as a society we are intolerant of drug use being used in open places like parks, playgrounds, beaches, hospitals and public spaces. That is not stigmatizing the user, it's stigmatizing the use of drugs.”

Ottawa is expected to respond soon to B.C.’s request to alter the decriminalization program, to prevent public drug use and street disorder.

But the actual pilot project will limp on until 2026, dramatically altered, poorly tracked and likely disprovable one way or another on whether this whole experiment was worth the controversy.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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