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Rob Shaw: Using decriminalization as a wedge issue won’t help fix B.C.’s overdose crisis

The Opposition BC Liberals are shifting their support away from decriminalization and the safe supply of drugs, in the wake of the positive reception to the party’s recent addictions treatment platform.
BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon (front)

The Opposition BC Liberals are shifting their support away from decriminalization and the safe supply of drugs, in the wake of the positive reception to the party’s recent addictions treatment platform.

The Liberals have been undergoing a not-so-subtle change on the issue, playing out mainly through leader Kevin Falcon’s amped-up messaging that the governing BC NDP is enabling chaos and disorder on the streets with its soft-on-crime peddling of free, legal drugs.

“The NDP's plunge headlong into decriminalization without the proper guardrails that even the federal government insisted should be in place is absolutely not something that we're going to support on this side of the house,” Falcon said last Thursday in the legislature, in what amounted to his strongest comments yet on the issue.

“The NDP's sole focus, as I've said repeatedly, is on the public supply of addictive drugs, ignoring the important emphasis that should be on actually helping people get off of their addictions and be proper, functioning members of society again.”

The Liberals have been foreshadowing this for weeks, and NDP Solicitor General Mike Farnworth was ready in response.

“As the member knows, both sides of the house have supported decriminalization,” he said. “If you're changing your position, then I think it would be an important thing to announce.”

The Liberals have not only supported decriminalization in the past, they co-wrote and endorsed the all-party health legislative committee’s report last year that called for the successful implementation of decriminalization and an examination of whether the 2.5-gram personal possession limit remains too low.

Numerous BC Liberal MLAs have also spoken out about the importance of decriminalization in the past, endorsing the call for action from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, who say it will reduce stigma and help encourage people suffering addictions to seek help.

That full-throated support, however, has shrunk in recent weeks to a begrudging aside in messaging that focuses almost entirely on addictions treatment and paints decriminalization as an agent of chaos thought up entirely by the NDP.

The timing coincided with the launch of Falcon’s $1.5 billion addictions treatment plan last month, and ramped up after the NDP budget last week in which New Democrats offered their own $1 billion treatment package that fell short of the Liberal plan in several key ways.

Falcon was later asked by reporters to outline the “guardrails” he thinks the government is lacking.

“The guardrails were set out in the letter of requirements that the federal government issued, I've actually got them right here,” Falcon said, brandishing the May 2022 letter from Ottawa accepting B.C.’s request to decriminalize small quantities of cocaine, opioids and methamphetamine from criminal charges.

“The key requirements that the government wanted to see was communication and public education should be in place, especially for children. This is very important.”

Important, perhaps. But public education has not been mentioned very often by the Liberals in the past few months. Now, suddenly, it is some sort of sticking point.

“Secondly,” Falcon continued, “law enforcement readiness. 

“There are all kinds of questions I hear from law enforcement officers that tell me, how do we deal with somebody that we've arrested? 

“Now they're going to be released, we have to give them back their heroin. What happens if they go on us and then die? What obligation do we have now? 

“Or what if we come across people openly using heroin in the parks, for example, or on the beaches in Vancouver – where ironically you're not allowed to smoke, but the open use of heroin and fentanyl is going to be apparently okay. There's no guardrails around that.”

Many of B.C.’s largest police departments were already operating with de facto decriminalization on the ground in streets like Vancouver and Victoria, prior to the legal change.

More than two-thirds of B.C.’s front-line police had gone through the first in a two-step training process on decriminalization when it began in February. The two largest police agencies in B.C., Vancouver police and the RCMP, made decriminalization training mandatory. 

There are also more resources coming, after the NDP government in November allocated $230 million in additional funds toward hiring more RCMP officers, bringing the force up to full strength.

Falcon’s final guardrail was: “What about the treatment and recovery beds that are supposed to be in place before this gets started? And they're not. The government admits they're not, and that there's already unacceptable wait lists that are currently in place.”

Which takes us back to treatment.

Falcon seems emboldened by both the widespread praise for his addictions plan, and also the NDP’s inability to match his proposal in areas like scrapping per-bed fees, and funding private beds to eliminate wait times.

It also plays much better within the centre-right BC Liberal coalition to push treatment, because free, safe drugs can be met with scepticism, if not outright hostility, amongst social conservatives that Falcon is trying to keep from bleeding off to the BC Conservative Party and its new MLA John Rustad.

Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre is already well down this path, with a post on social media on the weekend that commented on a CHEK News story about people in Nanaimo accessing safe supply only to resell it.

“The theory of safe supply: Give people taxpayer-funded ‘safe’ drugs so they don’t use dangerous ones. The reality: they sell the ‘safe’ drugs (sometimes to kids) to buy more potent ones that kill them. Enough. More treatment – not more poison.”

Falcon is not far behind on the rhetoric.

“What I see right now is that we are going to rush headlong into what they've seen in Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington; and San Francisco,” he said Thursday.

“And it's not going to end well for British Columbians… to see this government, like a car racing down the highway with nobody at the steering wheel.”

There was a time, not that long ago, that the BC Liberals implored the NDP to put politics aside on the overdose crisis and let parties work together to find a solution.

To former premier John Horgan’s credit, he did. If B.C. is now a car racing down a highway in a precarious direction, it’s because all MLAs from all parties set it out on that path.

It’s fine for the BC Liberals to change their position on decriminalization and safe supply. They can present whatever policies they want to voters in 2024.

But they should at least be honest with what they are doing. Paying lip service to supporting decriminalization in the name of putting politics aside during a public health crisis, and then turning it into a wedge issue against the NDP, makes the BC Liberals look like hypocrites, at best. 

At worst, the risk is it might make the BC Liberals look like they stand for nothing at all.

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.

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