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Rob Shaw: Province dashes planned dashboard on impact of drug decriminalization

BC NDP government weakens method to assess success and failure
Health, safety remain focus for new school year
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside is opting for a "different way" to share drug decriminalization impact. (BC Government Flickr)

(Editor's note: Story has been corrected to indicate the study of 500.)

The B.C. government is backing away from a promised publicly-available dashboard on the impacts of decriminalization, saying it’s constrained by the type of information available.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside had promised a public website with data to be launched in July. Monthly disclosure was also a condition of the federal government’s support for decriminalization in January.

But Whiteside said in an interview that B.C. will share the impacts of decriminalization “in a different way.”

That new way included the first of what’s called a “data snapshot” last week. The 41-page document posted on a government website sheds light for the first time on the metrics the NDP government is using to determine if decriminalization is successful.

Most of the five areas being monitored — stigma as a barrier to accessing healthcare, experiences of people using drugs, and positive or interactions with police — are based on a 2022 pre-decriminalization survey of roughly 500 people by the BC Centre for Disease Control, which was itself based on questions developed by Simon Fraser University researchers who surveyed 38 drug users earlier that year.

Only one of the five areas, monitoring interactions and investigations of drug possession, uses a different data source, directly from police agencies.

Not only is the information not updated monthly, it’s unclear when the government will update it at all.

“Certainly more than once a year,” said Whiteside, when asked. “But we’ll have to work with partners in the health system to determine what makes sense.”

BC United critic Elenore Sturko said it’s another broken promise from the NDP on decriminalization, which has also included inadequate public education and a failure to create an on-demand addictions treatment system — both also requirements of Health Canada.

Decriminalization has become a hot-topic political issue, with local politicians voting at last week’s Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting to call on the province for changes to address widespread open drug use. The Opposition BC United has promised to scrap decriminalization entirely.

“They were told explicitly within the federal letter of requirements, a monthly dashboard must be included, at a minimum,” said Sturko.

“If they were seeing great results, getting glowing reports from municipalities, and were seeing it make a big difference, this dashboard would be up.

“It’s no surprise they are not putting up more information.”

Part of the government's problem is the SFU survey for the CDC is only conducted annually, leaving a large gap in data for the rest of the year in the key areas the province has selected to measure, such as people’s stress levels over the the possibility of arrest, whether police are confiscating people’s drugs and whether people are seeking more help under the new rules.

“That will be the primary source to draw from, with respect to the people with living experience,” Whiteside said of the annual surveys.

B.C.’s pilot program on decriminalization is only three years long, raising the prospect that very little data will actually be available in a timely way to gauge the success of the program.

Decriminalization allows people to possess up to 2.5 grams of drugs like cocaine, heroin and fentanyl for personal use. The goal is to reduce stigma, and encourage drug users to seek help and treatment, without fear of arrest. But it has proven controversial.

Premier David Eby has promised changes this fall, after a backlash from local politicians over rampant drug use in areas where children and families congregate. Others have cited a persistent lack of available drug treatment facilities.

Measuring the impact of decriminalization was one of the conditions for an exemption from Health Canada.

“All relevant and available data sets will need to be used to support these efforts and data collection will need to start immediately upon the granting of the exemption to establish a baseline,” the then federal health minister wrote in a letter in January.

“A monthly dashboard must include, at a minimum, indicators for the following themes: access to harm reduction, health, social and economic issues, and criminal justice.”

To Ottawa, the study of the project’s successes and failures was a key requirement.

“Strong data and evidence is necessary to ensure the exemption is meeting its goals and identifying any unintended negative consequences that must be addressed,” read the letter.

Then federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett later said the dashboard could be updated quarterly. That won’t be happening, either.

“That was a comment that the federal minister made at the time and perhaps without having what kinds of information would be produced and how it would be coming forward,” said Whiteside.

“As we are working with law enforcement, and the health system and with the BC Centre for Disease Control, which has provided some of the baseline data for some of the material, we obviously have a much greater understanding now of how that information is coming forward.”

The CDC has for some time run a public dashboard on the toxic drug crisis, which measures such things as the number of take-home Naloxone kits, unregulated drug deaths, paramedic-attended events, safe supply and overdose prevention sites. It does not include any data specific to decriminalization.

Whiteside said the government does intend to try and inform the public about how it sees decriminalization working, as best it can, when it can.

“It’s our commitment to report out on how the decriminalization project is going, and not only that but where it fits in the whole objective we have for decriminalization, which is really about shifting how we treat individuals carrying small amounts for personal use, and realign addictions as a health matter and not a criminal matter,” she said.

Internally, Whiteside said government officials will track the success of decriminalization via a working group that includes law enforcement, municipal representatives, public health officers and people with lived experience. But neither that working group, nor its information, will be public.

Sturko accused the NDP of fast-tracking decriminalization before it had proper monitoring and safeguards.

“If the government is relying on the experience of municipalities and people living in communities about the impact of decriminalization, then it’s already clear to see that decrim is failing because people do not feel safe in their communities and municipalities are coming forward to say they are feeling drastic impacts,” she said.

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. [email protected]