Photo: Nicholas Johansen
Helen Jennens lost both of her sons to overdoses.

Oregon made history Tuesday night when residents voted to decriminalize the possession of personal amounts of all drugs, something health officials in British Columbia have been urging for years.

The ballot initiative, passing with more than 58 per cent of the vote, will see people who are arrested with small amounts of drugs pay a $100 fine and attend treatment programs, rather than face jail time. Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, has been advocating for a similar move in Canada.

Kelowna’s Helen Jennens knows the very real consequences of the opioid crisis in B.C. Now a member of the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm, Jennens lost both of her sons to overdoses. For years, she’s been advocating for the decriminalization of drugs, along with providing a safe supply of drugs for those suffering from addiction.

“If jail time worked, nobody would be addicted,” she said. “Compassionately, it’s the right thing to do, but also, from an economic standpoint, it’s the right thing to do.

“It just doesn’t make sense to fill up our jails to solve a problem like substance use … We’re never going to get a handle on this crisis until we start making those moves. Trudeau has said over and over and over again he’s not even considering decriminalization but they’re going to have to. We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

In Kelowna, The Bridge Youth and Family Services provides a variety of recovery services for the communities’ most vulnerable. John Yarschenko, director of recovery and addictions services with the Bridge, said Oregon’s vote to decriminalize drugs was a surprising, but positive move.

“Criminalizing folks for the possession of small amounts of substances does not often contribute directly to a good health outcome,” Yarschenko said. “It’s definitely something I hope has really great results and then begins to spread not just in the U.S. but up here in Canada.”

Both Yarschenko and Jennens pointed to the importance of reducing the stigma around drug use, which decriminalization can help with.

“It is a medical issue, but we don’t want to look at it that way, we want to look at it like a choice,” Jennens said. “It’s like a perfect storm, maybe their childhood trauma, their living conditions, mental pain and physical pain. And here was something that took all that away, and they’re now addicted to it.”

“We already know what we get with the [criminal justice approach], we get what we’ve got,” Yarschenko added.

While Oregon residents directly voted to decriminalize drug possession, a similar measure would require federal legislation changes in Canada. In B.C., Dr. Henry has been advocating for the federal government to make moves on the issue, as hundreds of British Columbians continue to die from overdoses every year.

Last August, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada issued a new set of guidelines to prosecutors, advising them to only pursue charges against the “most serious cases,” and pursue alternative measures that divert people away from the criminal justice system for simple possession cases.

“Criminal sanctions, as a primary response, have a limited effectiveness as specific or general deterrents and as a means of addressing the public safety concerns when considering the harmful effects of criminal records and short periods of incarceration,” the PPSC wrote. But this still leaves the issue in the hands of prosecutors. 

Jennens, with Moms Stop the Harm, has been writing politicians for years, including directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, urging legislative action on the matter. But the federal government has shown little interest in decriminalization.

“We haven’t been able to change people’s minds even with the loss of lives we’ve sustained in British Columbia,” Helens said. “If that doesn’t change people’s minds, what does?”

This content was originally published here.