Palmer: Chief coroner doubles down on call for ‘safer’ hard drugs

Opinion: New chief coroner would be wise to find more realistic ideas to toss at politicians

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VICTORIA — Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe reported the grim news this week that in the first year of decriminalization of hard drugs, B.C. recorded a 10 per cent increase in overdose deaths.

Still, Lapointe insisted that the province is on the right track, notwithstanding the death toll rising to 2,511 in 2023 from 2,272 the previous year.

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“Decriminalization is not responsible for these deaths,” said the chief coroner, who retires next month, during a farewell briefing for reporters Wednesday. “Illicit fentanyl is responsible for these deaths. The goal of decriminalization didn’t mean that more drugs were available.”

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More to the point, she says “the goal of decriminalization was to remove the stigma so that people could access supports. We don’t have those supports in place.”

The New Democrats have slowly added supports for treatment and recovery. There was another announcement along those lines Thursday. But the pace lags behind the targets set by advocates.

Even if the capacity kept up with demand, Lapointe says, “not everybody’s ready for treatment and recovery.”

Hence her number 1 recommendation as she prepares to leave office: “The expansion of non-prescribed safer supply,” she said, doubling down on the recommendation from an expert panel she first fielded last year.

When Lapointe called last November for the government to provide access to hard drugs without prescriptions, the New Democrats rejected it before she’d even finished speaking.

Premier David Eby backhanded the recommendation again Thursday. He says the province should not be dispensing hard drugs without the oversight of a medical professional.

I asked Lapointe if she could point to any evidence of success from the first year of decriminalization.

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“I haven’t seen any data,” she replied. “The drug supply is increasingly toxic. It’s going to be very hard to measure the impact, positive or negative, of decriminalization, and I think that’s where it’s really important that we gather data, and that data is shared.”

Yet from the outset, the federal and provincial governments insisted the experiment would be monitored for the evidence-based, data-driven policy-making it was supposed to reflect.

Lapointe also cited a lack of data in discussing the Eby government’s attempted crackdown on open drug use.

She agrees with the “very thoughtful” decision by Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson of B.C. Supreme Court to issue a temporary injunction against the law — a decision that is now being appealed by the province.

“It has been very, very, difficult that the decriminalization pilot started at a time when the housing crisis became most acute,” Lapointe explained.

“Homelessness has increased significantly across our province. If people are homeless, then everything they do happens in public. If they use drugs, then that will happen in public.”

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She’s heard the concerns from local government leaders and others about open drug use in public spaces.

“What we have not seen is any data to show whether or not people are actually using drugs more in public or whether that is a perception.”

Moreover, she maintains that “there’s no evidence to suggest that the general public is at risk from public drug use.

“It’s not comfortable seeing people use drugs in public,” she conceded, grossly understating the reaction of parents in particular and other members of the public in general.

She continued: “But who is most uncomfortable? Is it those of us who get to return to our warm homes and beds and showers at the end of the day, or is it those living unhoused who are trying to cope the best way they know how, often while experiencing illness, pain or chronic health conditions? Who is most at risk from a safety perspective?”

I don’t doubt Lapointe’s seriousness of purpose in a demanding job at a dark time.

But the chief coroner was objecting to a law that would restrict open drug use within six metres of a bus stop and 15 metres of a playground. In restricting open drug use, the New Democrats were trying to shore up public support for decriminalization, not sink it.

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“As coroners, we’re not advocates,” Lapointe said in closing. “Our job is to be impartial and objective … If I’m an advocate for anything it is to prevent death.”

Within those confines she has some advice for politicians of every political stripe.

“Our politicians need to be courageous,” she argues.

“They need to push back against that narrative that we are providing drugs — and I hate to use this word — to drug addicts. That’s an ugly word. It’s stigmatizing. It’s dehumanizing.

“These are our family members, they’re our community members, and we need to be courageous and say what will actually make a difference and what will save lives. We don’t want to see another 2,500 people die next year.

“As long as we continue to nibble at the margins, making announcements that don’t actually make a material difference in peoples’ lives, then I fear that the next chief coroner will be here next year this time and providing similar data.”

A sobering thought. But perhaps her successor will also have a more realistic grasp of the obstacles to implementing a policy as fraught with controversy as decriminalization.

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