British Columbia officially requests decriminalization of drug possession

Apr 27, 2021

On the fifth anniversary of declaring B.C.’s public health emergency for overdose deaths, B.C. will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs.

Since April 14, 2016, the BC Coroners Service reports illicit drugs have claimed the lives of at least 7,072 British Columbians.

As British Columbia marks five years since declaring a public health emergency due to opioid deaths, the B.C. provincial government has announced it will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada to become the first province to decriminalize personal possession of illicit drugs. Specifically, the province will formally seek a province-wide exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to eliminate criminal penalties for individuals who possess a small amount of drugs for personal use.

“Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone,” Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said. “Through province-wide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment.”

“People who use drugs are in a health crisis and they should not face criminal penalties,” Malcolmson added. “Drug laws and enforcing them has had a punishing effect on people, driving them to use alone and putting their lives in serious jeopardy.”

So far, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths with 1,716 lives lost. However, according to the B.C. Coroners Service, 2021 is shaping up to be even deadlier.

“Every life lost is a policy failure not allowing us to implement strategies to help people and remove them from the illicit drug supply,” Guy Felicella, an adviser with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said in his interview with CBC News.

B.C. has implemented temporary measures during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow better access to opioids through prescription, due to an increase in illicit drug deaths during the pandemic caused by individuals using drugs alone and disruption to the international supply of illicit drugs.

According to the provincial government, since 2018, over 6,000 deaths have been averted because of expanded access to overdose prevention services and availability of naloxone. In addition, over 23,000 people are currently receiving some form of opioid agonist treatment in B.C., which is more than at any other time.

First Nations communities have been particularly affected by the overdose crisis, with 16% of the province’s drug-related deaths involving Indigenous people, who account for only 3.3% of the province’s population, according to the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA). Moreover, there has been a 93% increase in drug-related deaths among First Nations individuals between January and May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

“The data underscores the immense toll that illicit drug toxicity is having on the lives of Indigenous people and their communities in B.C.,” said Dr. Shannon McDonald, the acting FNHA chief medical officer.