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Charla Huber: Decriminalizing drugs is an act of compassion

Decriminalizing possession of drugs in small amounts is a step toward creating understanding, and seeing this as a human issue rather than a criminal one.
Moms Stop The Harm members hold signs calling for decriminalization in front of the Ministry of Health building on Blanshard Street in 2020. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

This week, B.C. became the first province to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. I think this is a huge step in changing the narrative for drug use and supporting people.

At this point, I am sure we have all lost friends, family and peers to drugs. Anyone who has seen someone struggle with addiction knows how paralyzing it can be, and how hopeless the situation can feel.

I have never used hard drugs, but I have seen people close to me struggle with them.

In my 20s, I had a friend who became addicted to shooting cocaine. I watched his entire life transform and his body weaken. He would go missing for days, and I would wonder if he was still alive.

Each time he resurfaced, he looked a little more lost. He would tell us about how he had “overdosed” and been “revived.”

At one point, he said he wanted help, and my boyfriend at the time invited him to come and stay in our apartment. It was hard seeing him struggle, then disappear again.

I would lie awake worried for him, wondering if he was alive.

It was an experience that changed my life — it was the first time I’d seen someone I knew well fall into addiction to hard drugs.

We lost touch, and I can’t remember the details. Years later, I saw him on the cover of the Times Colonist for a story on homelessness. It was the only way I knew he was still alive. I don’t know where he is now.

The boyfriend who invited him to stay with us died last year. When I met him, he was sober and would never be around drugs or alcohol. We dated for four years, and broke up when I was in my mid-20s.

He died on the streets of Vancouver, another reminder that people close to us can have demons and struggles at any point in their lives, no matter how well off they seem to be.

It’s hard to see people we care about struggle with addiction. Addiction has a stigma — people who are struggling are judged. Unfortunately, addiction can lead people to actions they wouldn’t choose if they weren’t struggling.

Decriminalizing possession of drugs in small amounts is a step toward creating understanding, and seeing this as a human issue rather than a criminal one.

Recently, I was introduced to the term “drug poisoning.” It was explained to me that “overdose” implies that the person took too many drugs, when actually many of the drugs are tainted with lethal amounts of substances like fentanyl.

The B.C. government says the goal of decriminalization is to “reduce the barriers and stigma that prevent people from accessing life-saving supports and services. Substance use is a public health matter, not a criminal justice issue.”

I am not an expert in this and I am not sure exactly how it will be implemented.

If someone is found in possession of small amounts of opioids, cocaine, meth or MDMA, the drugs will not be confiscated. This shows compassion to someone who is addicted, because if it is confiscated, they are bound to need to find more, which can lead to actions that negatively affect the user and others.

I know not everyone who uses drugs sees themselves as sick or struggling. Not everyone who uses drugs wants to be offered services and resources. But there are some people who will appreciate this and that is why it’s important.

There is no easy solution to addiction, which is a multifaceted, complex issue and experience. Even people who appreciate the offer of services and resources may have significant barriers and challenges to accepting them.

Even with that, it’s worth a try.

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