On May 31, the federal government announced that starting on Jan. 31, 2023, British Columbia will become the first province in Canada to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
The decision was made following the request by the B.C. government to receive an exemption under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Accordingly, adult B.C. residents adults found to be carrying up to 2.5 grams of specific drugs including opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine will not be subject to arrest or charges, and their drugs will not be seized. Instead, the police will provide information on available services and if requested, provide support in connecting the individual with those services.
“Decriminalizing the simple possession of drugs is a historic, brave and groundbreaking step in the fight to save lives. It marks a fundamental re-thinking of drug policy that favours health-care over handcuffs,” said Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart.
According to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, the exemption aims to reduce the stigma and shame around illicit drug use. “Because of that risk of being labeled a criminal, losing their job, not being able to get an apartment, not being able to travel, things like losing their children, it keeps them from talking to their family and friends about their drug use. And that keeps them from accessing services,” she said.
Since B.C. had originally requested a 4.5-gram personal use exemption from the federal government, there have been concerns that the cumulative permitted 2.5 grams of illicit drugs will not be enough for individuals who use more than that per day.
“The more times you have to access this illicit supply, the more chances you have of having an overdose or death. So that’s why 2.5 grams is not practical, it is not what people who use drugs need to hear,” said the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, Leslie McBain, in her interview with CTV News. “Decriminalization is a step to getting there, but in and of itself it will not save lives,” she added. Illicit drugs have become much more lethal since then. “We are losing our loved ones at rates that are almost beyond belief. ”
Dr. Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner has also expressed concerns over the effectiveness of the new measure. “It’s been described as decriminalization. I’m not sure that it is,” Lapointe said in her interview with CBC News. “I would have to say, honestly, that this guideline for non-enforcement for small amounts of substances is not going to make a significant difference in the short term,” she added. Dr. Lapointe added that the threshold of 2.5 grams is too low to help most drug users or to prevent many deaths caused by B.C.’s tainted illicit drug supply.
In a released statement, Health Canada noted that B.C. will use the eight months leading up to the start of the exemption to speak to impacted groups and train law enforcement.
Possession for the purpose of trafficking, production, and export of any amount of the drugs listed under the exemption will remain illegal.