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B.C.’s drug decriminalization pilot excludes young users — and that will marginalize them, experts fear

Experts say an upcoming pilot to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs in British Columbia could increase risks for vulnerable youth because it excludes people under 18.

As of Jan. 31, people aged 18 and older will be able to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA within the province.

While advocates for drug users say decriminalization alone won’t stop thousands of people dying from a tainted drug supply, others say it is a step in the right direction when it comes to treatment.

But some say the fact it excludes youth could further marginalize drug users under the age of 18 — especially given that there are no youth-oriented harm reduction spaces in the province.

“I feel like … more criminal charges are coming for a lot of youth,” said Kali Sedgemore, a youth harm reduction advocate.

Sedgemore also said the threshold provided under the pilot — 2.5 grams — was far too small, given how youth use and consume substances.

“A lot of people have tolerances that are really high and they’re buying large amounts — buying for friends and stuff like that,” they said. “It’s becoming an issue now where people are going to see their dealer multiple times a day.”

After the decriminalization policy goes through, Sedgemore says those multiple visits could further invite unwanted police attention and lead to unsafe drug use.

“Youth are using in back alleys, they’re having to use in parking lots,” they said. “They’re also hidden from the public. So a lot of times, if they overdose, there’s no one to reverse it.”

Health Canada said in a statement that youth caught possessing illegal drugs would be subject to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which “encourages diversion from the formal criminal justice system where appropriate.”

They did not provide a specific reason why youth were excluded from the policy but said authorities would look to “evaluate the impact of excluding youth from the exemption.”

‘Just say no’ not the answer

Dr. Danya Fast, an assistant professor at the University of B.C. and research scientist with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said the fact young people would be excluded from the pilot was unsurprising.

“Youth are often excluded from our most progressive harm reduction and drug policy approaches,” she said, adding that the move was likely due to governments relying on a “just say no,” or abstinence-based, approach.

She says that could further contribute to stigma and harm youngsters in the current context of a poisoned supply.

A woman in a sports stadium holds up a jersey with the name 'Just Say No', as a man cheers behind her.
In this Oct. 2, 1988, file photo, Nancy Reagan is seen holding a jersey before a football game. Reagan is perhaps best known for her ‘Just Say No’ to drugs and alcohol campaign, which promoted an abstinence-based approach to drugs — something Dr. Danya Fast says won’t help vulnerable youth. (File Photo by Doug Mills/The Associated Press)

“[There’s] this fear that if we acknowledge that young people use drugs, and give them the spaces and the things they need to do that more safely, that we will be responsible in some ways for their death,” she said. 

“But what we’ve heard from young people … time and time again is that it’s relationships that can really save lives.”

A study co-authored by Fast and Sedgemore showed that young drug users say they want more harm reduction spaces in order to cultivate relationships with other youth, care providers and peers.

“It just really drives home the need for that space where young people can enter and open up conversations on their own terms with other young people,” Fast said.

The B.C. government has yet to allow youth-specific supervised consumption sites, as recommended by a recent cross-party report.

When asked, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside did not directly answer the question but pointed to other projects underway in the province.

“We are … building integrated child and youth teams in 20 school districts. These teams offer clinical supportsand harm reduction services to young people and their families,” she said in a statement.

Focus on treatment

Fast says that there have been efforts from the province to not heavily criminalize young people — but that some of the young drug users she worked with likened addictions treatment to incarceration.

“We’re moving toward decriminalization … but we’re replacing that with what can be experienced by youth, even if that’s not the intention, as a very coercive pathway into housing, into treatment,” she said.

Fast’s research has found that young people having negative experiences with the health-care system could lead to them becoming “very adept” at evading that system, further exposing them to dangerous conditions.

Sedgemore says addictions treatment, especially institutionalization, can separate youngsters from their family and support systems — particularly if they are in remote communities.

They add that parents, care providers and the government should listen to young people and let them make their own decisions when it comes to treatment.

Other advocates, including from the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, have called on B.C. to stop prioritizing treatment over a safe supply of drugs.

“While currently technically available to youth … [safe supply] remains practically inaccessible because of systemic barriers to care and physician reluctance to prescribe to minors,” reads a statement from the group.

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