Hard Drug Decriminalization Won’t Save Lives in BC, Says Recovered Drug Addict

By Marnie Cathcart
Marnie Cathcart
Marnie Cathcart
Marnie Cathcart is a reporter based in Edmonton.
February 7, 2023Updated: February 8, 2023

Giuseppe Ganci, a recovering former cocaine and ecstasy addict now on the front lines treating drug addicts, said British Columbia’s move to decriminalize possession of up to 2.6 grams of hard drugs will not save lives.

Ganci, who works at Last Door Recovery, an inpatient addiction treatment facility for ages 13 to adult in New Westminster, B.C., told The Epoch Times that suggesting stigmatization is preventing addicts from getting treatment is “bizarre.”

The B.C. government, under a temporary three-year exemption from Health Canada, announced that, as of Jan. 31, adults over 18 can legally possess up to 2.5 grams total of any combination of cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, heroin, fentanyl, and/or morphine, for personal use, at no risk of being arrested, charged, or having their drugs seized.

A Jan. 30 news release said decriminalization is a “critical step” the government is taking “to end the shame and stigma that prevents people with substance-use challenges from reaching out for life-saving help.”

“The decriminalization of people who are in possession of drugs for personal use is one additional important step to save lives as we continue to tackle the toxic drug crisis in B.C.,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“It’s just not true,” says Ganci. “I’ve never met a person who uses drugs, including myself, that didn’t get help because they felt ‘stigmatized.’”

He said addicts use drugs and don’t get treatment because they “like” drugs and “don’t want to stop using.”

Curtis Robinson, a 27-year officer with the Vancouver Police Department who retired as a sergeant, walked a daily beat with a partner in Vancouver’s drug-infested Downtown Eastside.

He also doesn’t believe decriminalization is the right approach.

“This is a failure of government to figure out what really works,” he said in an interview.

“All of a sudden, the province says, we’re going to do these people a tremendous favour because of stigmatism. Yet, police have generally not arrested drug addicts with small amounts of drugs since 1995.”

Stigma is immaterial to drug addicts, Robinson says.

“No drug addict in the world worries about what people think. They are focused on getting high and staving off the horrible withdrawal symptoms of being addicted to drugs,” he says.

“Drug addicts concentrate on one single thing every day—drugs. And if you’re a coke addict, it’s every 45 minutes. The idea that you’re providing them some degree of dignity is nonsense.”

Epoch Times Photo
A woman prepares to smoke a cigarette in an alley after using illicit drugs at an outdoor supervised consumption site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on May 27, 2021. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Evidence, Contrasting Strategies

The Epoch Times asked the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions what evidence the province used to conclude destigmatization would save lives and prevent drug deaths.

“Drug use is a public health matter – not a criminal justice one. Criminalization drives people to hide their drug use and often use alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply – using alone can be fatal,” the ministry replied in a statement.

According to the province’s submission to Health Canada in October 2021, “illicit drug poisoning is now the leading cause of death amongst British Columbians aged 19 to 39.”

“[Decriminalization] will break down the barriers that prevent people from reaching out for help and create new pathways to life-saving services,” the ministry stated in its statement, noting “different forms of decriminalization have been implemented in many other jurisdictions, including Portugal, Australia, the Czech Republic and Oregon.”

In developing the request for exemption from Health Canada, B.C. “considered the strengths and limitations” of these and other decriminalization models, the statement said.

B.C.’s approach to decriminalization contrasts sharply with Alberta’s focus on addictions recovery and treatment programs, which includes the construction of a 75-bed long-term residential treatment facility in Red Deer, announced on Jan. 16, plus five more recovery communities in various stages of planning throughout the province.

“While Alberta’s government does not believe in criminalizing a health-care issue, you cannot simply take away penalties for unlawful behaviour and expect things to get better,” Colin Aitchison, spokesperson for Alberta’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction, told The Epoch Times in an email.

He said Alberta is “building a recovery-oriented system of addiction and mental health care” and will create more than 9,000 new publicly funded addiction treatment spaces and eliminate user fees for residential addiction treatment.

Ganci says a residential treatment program turned his life around. He started using alcohol and marijuana at 13, and by 16 was addicted to hard drugs. He spent over 20 years in and out of recovery and relapse cycles, finally accessing help in his late 30s.

He said he could have died at any time. It took serious, negative consequences from his addiction to finally convince him seek treatment.

“I was going to lose my job. I got caught [using] at work,” he said. He was able to access an occupational health service through work that offered a one-year drug rehab program.

“I ended up going to treatment and it changed my life, but it was because of the consequences of my drug addiction, not because I was worried about stigma,” he said.

“Decriminalization does not stop overdoses—dissuasion does, prevention does.”

Epoch Times Photo
A woman sits on the ground after injecting herself with an unknown substance outside Insite, the supervised injection site, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Feb. 21, 2017. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

‘Open Season’

B.C.’s continued focus on harm reduction versus treatment is going to mean “open season” for crime in Vancouver, Robinson says, predicting “a spike in property crime, stranger assaults, shoplifting, break and enters, theft from auto, etc.”

“You can have over five half-gram decks of drugs in your possession and nothing’s going to happen—except an increase on the health-care system, income assistance, housing crisis, property crime issues, and police calls for service,” he said.

“This is a system that absolutely guarantees failure. Nobody is going to successfully survive, get treatment, and recover under this model. … The drug addict is still using the same poisonous, dirty fentanyl.”

Filmmaker Aaron Gunn, who produced the 2022 documentary “Vancouver is Dying,” spent months interviewing city residents, business owners, law enforcement, mental health and addiction experts, victims of violent crime, and recovered addicts.

Gunn told The Epoch Times that since B.C. began its harm reduction strategy in 2001, both crime and overdose deaths in the province have skyrocketed.

“There’s been a massive increase in homelessness, open-air drug use, and just general degeneracy in much of Vancouver,” he said.

In 2001, Vancouver implemented the “Four Pillars” drug strategy, which included harm reduction. The city started a 24-hour-a-day needle exchange program, followed by needle distribution, and in 2003 opened Insite, North America’s first supervised injection site.

In 2022, according to the BC Coroners Service, 2,272 people died in the province due to toxic, illegal drugs, which works out to 6.2 lives lost each day. In 2001 there were 272 drug overdose deaths in B.C., according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Gunn says decriminalization “will make hard drug use that much more out in the open. People won’t have to hide. They can do lines of cocaine and shoot up heroin almost anywhere without consequence.”

In addition, people will now be able to “openly carry a significant amount of drugs, [which] will make it easier to sell and deal drugs,” he says.

“Finally, it’s idiotic and incredibly misguided to destigmatize drug use, which lowers the barriers to doing it, so people do more of it,” Gunn adds.

“These drugs like crystal meth and fentanyl are some of the most damaging substances on the planet. There’s no such thing as a ‘safe’ amount of fentanyl or crystal meth.”

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