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Rob Shaw: Watchdogs suggest a larger government role in selling decriminalized drugs

The musings of Dr. Bonnie Henry, Lisa Lapointe and Jennifer Charlesworth create a difficult task for the NDP government
 Bonnie Henry in march 2021
Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry says the province might be wise one day to sell street drugs to drive out the illicit market.

Three of B.C.’s top watchdogs united this week with the goal of propping up public support for safe supply and decriminalization programs amidst a worsening toxic drug crisis.

But their freewheeling hour-long press conference, in which they sketched out a desire for a surprisingly expanded future for provincial drug policy, may have inadvertently done more harm than good to their cause.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe and Children’s Representative Jennifer Charlesworth started out their event Monday with a counterattack against mayors, BC United MLAs and federal Conservatives who are out in the media blaming safe supply and decriminalization for worsening drug use in public spaces, street disorder, vandalism and crime.

“Different perspectives are invaluable in the face of this complex foe, but this is no time for polarizing, fear-driven, and often political conflicts,” said Charlesworth.

There’s no evidence safe supply has “flooded the streets” with additional drugs, nor is it true more people are dying because of safe supply, or that more children are overdosing under the policies, said the watchdogs.

“We are standing together saying fear based, polarizing rhetoric that is not evidence-informed is causing harm,” said Charlesworth.

Yet the trio was not content on simply backstopping the existing programs. Instead, they pushed forward into new territory — sketching out a future where the government ramps up safe supply to the point it disrupts organized criminals currently selling contaminated drugs on the street.

“Some of us have talked about if there was more safer supply out there, would that reduce people's reliance on the illicit drug market?” asked Lapointe. “Is that a bad thing?”

It was quite a controversial question to haphazardly toss out half-way through a press conference.

But before anyone could wrap their head around it, they were whipsawed in an even more ambitious direction by Dr. Henry.

Perhaps, she mused, B.C. should consider regulating and selling clean street drugs like it currently does cannabis — an idea she said would put the province somewhere between the policies of prohibition (which drives drugs underground and into the hands of criminals) and promotion (which actively encourages usage of a harmful substance, like alcohol).

“So we need a spot somewhere in the middle and I would say that the experiment, or what we're doing with legalization and regulation of cannabis fits into that, where you have enough controls and you have enough regulation, but you also have monitoring and safety of the product,” she said.

“So in the long term, would that be a way to counter the toxic street drugs and to take that business away from organized crime? Absolutely. But we're not there yet.”

Not there yet, is a bit of an understatement.

Has the public ever seriously discussed going there at all?

Has the provincial or federal governments ever even raised that possibility, as part of the evolution of the current pilot programs on safe supply and decriminalization?

Does the general public want a government that takes on the business of regulating and selling cocaine, heroin and meth?

The public musings of the watchdogs put the NDP government in a tough spot.

The government has gone out on a limb with safe supply and decrim, based on expert advice from respected, thoughtful advocates like Lapointe, Dr. Henry and Charlesworth, along with drug addictions experts (though the field remains split on the idea) and addiction user groups.

It has withstood withering criticism from the Opposition BC United party, which has portrayed almost every incident of vandalism, crime, violence and disorder in the last few months as the result of a “reckless” government experimenting on the fly with dangerous, addictive drugs. And it has attempted to hold steady on its programs, even as new polling shows 61 per cent of British Columbians consider prescription and non-prescription opioid drug use in their community a “major problem” and 56 per cent think the province is doing a “bad” or “very bad” job with its response, as deaths continue to rise.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside was left with the delicate task of responding to the watchdogs.

She offered government support for the call to expand safe supply to higher dosages for users whose addiction cannot be treated under the current maximum, as well as to researching potential new alternative safe supply drugs.

But she stopped well short of any talk of using safe supply to push out organized crime, or of considering a future of cannabis-style sales of illicit drugs.

“I think we have a lot to do with respect to how our current safe supply program is operating,” she said, diplomatically.

Critics of safe supply and decrim say the hasty way the province charged forward into the programs has led to the unintended consequences playing out on city streets today.

The careless way the watchdogs tossed out the idea of expanding the program to controversial new heights this week will only add to that criticism.

Casting too far forward to a hypothetical future that mainstream British Columbians aren’t ready for, may inadvertently undermine the tenuous public buy-in on the present day safe supply and decriminalization policies.

The coroner, provincial health officer and children’s representative seem keen to dramatically advance public health policy on illicit drugs. But, before they do so, it may be a good idea to check in with the public and make sure they are bringing people along with their ideas.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 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. [email protected]