BC Nurses Convention
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‘Punitive and Coercive’: BC’s Biggest Nurses Union Calls For An End to Archaic Workplace Drug Policies

Drug policy advocates say leadership is needed to mobilize unions to take action

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Drug policy advocates say newly passed resolutions at the BC Nurses Convention signal a much needed change in unionized workplaces.

Three resolutions were adopted by the BC Nurses Union last week, committing to more progressive workplace drug policies.

Currently, many workers in BC, including nurses, are being pushed into the unregulated, for-profit treatment and recovery system if they test positive for any substances—even if they were not impaired on the job.

Many are directed to private “recovery centres” in order to receive disability benefits.

Delegates voted unanimously in favour of a resolution calling on the BCNU “to lobby the BC College of Nurses and Midwives and health employers to provide individualized, trauma-informed, culturally-competent and collaborative care that is confidential, supports recovery and harm reduction, and offers avenues for nurses to remain at or return to work.”

They also voted to call on the BCNU to lobby the provincial and federal governments to allow for the provision of a regulated system of safe drug supply, while a third resolution carried, directing the union to lobby the provincial government develop a system of mental health and addiction treatment and recovery services that are “regulated, evidence-based, economically and geographically accessible.”

Clinical Nurse Specialist Corey Ranger and Byron Wood of Workers for Ethical Substance Use Policy drafted the resolutions as a response to what they say are archaic workplace drug policies that are inherently “punitive and coercive” in their approach.

“I think that there is an opportunity with mobilizing labor unions and in particular with the nurses Union, in weighing in on public policy and on drug policy reform and that hasn’t been fully realized or explored in the past,” Ranger told PressProgress.

“We’re seven years into this public health emergency. And really, we need more influential and powerful allies to start showing up and to start making this a priority. I think this is an important step for that.”

In November, The BC Federation of Labour passed resolutions submitted by BCGEU committing to lobbying the government to end drug prohibition and to ensure that addiction treatment is voluntary. 

“First the BC federal Federation of Labor, and now the BC nurses union have both committed to lobbying for drug policy that’s going to keep workers alive, keep them healthy and keep them in the workforce,” Wood told PressProgress.

“I think it’s a sign that the labour movement in BC is really getting behind progressive drug policy, and also, specifically the BCNU resolution that’s calling for an end to these coercive and harmful policies for nurses and towards a harm reduction approach.”

Ranger adds that the resolutions that have been adopted reflect a need to advocate for “regulated markets.”

“We should be arguing for regulated markets for drugs, but we should also be arguing for regulated markets for treatment, because people deserve the right to choose and know exactly what they’re  signing up for,” Ranger said. 

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In 2021, the BCNU co-authored a report calling for reforms to how nurses with substance use disorders are treated, including a need to evaluate treatment and recovery which remains unregulated in BC.

Ranger says small steps like these are important to addressing the toxic drug and overdose crisis because punitive policies lead to people using in “discreet and unsafe ways.”

“The current state of drug policy within workplaces actually prevents us from acknowledging that this is a whole population level issue,” Ranger said.

“This isn’t an issue for one specific demographic or group of people. There’s an entire cohort of individuals who would benefit from access to harm reduction services to safe supply. And we’re not even approaching them right now.”

In a statement to PressProgress, a spokesperson for the BCNU said they “welcome the positive decision by delegates.”

“The resolution, passed almost unanimously, allows the union to expand upon its advocacy on behalf of those experiencing stigma in the workplace due to substance use disorders.”

CUPE, Canada’s largest union says they are also advocating for harm reduction and working to support members in the ways they need.

“Our union advocates for a harm reduction approach first and foremost, and we support our members on this front,” a spokesperson for CUPE told PressProgress. “We also recognize that workers who use drugs, or who need help facing substance related issues and stigma in the workplace, need and deserve support from their union.”

Ranger says it is crucial to maintain the momentum to see action taken on the resolutions that have been passed.

“What happens next is critical. How do we get the full force of large and influential unions, like the BC nurses union, to start advocating and to start doing the work to make sure that these resolutions don’t just die on the vine? That’s going to be where the challenge comes.”


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Rumneek Johal
Rumneek Johal is PressProgress' BC Reporter. Her reporting focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism.

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