Reviewing B.C. six months into drug decriminalization

Oct 17, 2023

A recent analysis authored by Elizabeth McSheffrey and published by Global News examined the challenges faced by B.C. following the implementation of illicit drug decriminalization in the province. Specifically, some of the challenges identified include unnecessary police involvement, individuals facing increasing stigma related to drug use, and the lack of clearly defined and safe drug use spaces in order to mitigate drug-related harms.

 In 2022, Health Canada granted an exemption to B.C. under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act effective for the period spanning January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026.

According to this exemption, adult individuals in B.C. are not arrested or charged for possessing small amounts of specific illegal drugs for personal use. In addition, the illegal drugs covered by the exemption include opioids, cocaine and crack, methamphetamine, and MDMA. The limit on personal substance possession is 2.5 grams.

Data from the B.C. Coroners Service demonstrates that 47% of all unregulated drug deaths in July 2023 took place in private residences, while one-third of the deaths took place in other indoor spaces, such as social and supportive housing units, SROs, shelters, and hotels. Moreover, 19% of deaths occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets, and parks.

In recent years, there has been an increased number of bylaws restricting public drug use being implemented across the province.

In her interview with Global News, Brittany Graham, executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said that there has been increasing “political backlash” since the implementation of decriminalization. Specifically, she raised concerns over bylaws restricting public drug use add to the stigma and compromise safety, given that precariously housed people have nowhere else to go.

“A small percentage of people are choosing to use in public spaces. If they had a home, if they had options, if they had detox services, if they had any of the things that they needed — there’s very few people that would purposely choose to be in a park to use drugs, but we’re not acknowledging that none of those things exist for that person,” said Graham.

The Safe Streets Bylaw was passed in Prince George in September 2021 and forbids open drug use or disposal of drug paraphernalia on any street, roadway, open space, or park in the city. Since the implementation of decriminalization in B.C., other bylaw plans have appeared across the province.  

 While Prince George RCMP declined to be interviewed by Global News regarding this matter, Cpl. Jenn Cooper stated in email correspondence that “with the advent of decriminalization, we continue to receive a high volume of calls for service from members of the public concerned about used needles and broken glass pipes in areas where the public, and in particularly children, are put at risk of injury.” She also added that the Safe Streets Bylaw is the only tool available to us to curb open drug use in some areas of the city.

Furthermore, Nelson Mayor Janice Morrison said that having clearly defined areas for drug use will help reduce stigma related to drug use.

“I think what happens is that more people are now seeing people using drugs openly, and I think that’s making it somewhat worse for those that take the drugs, and also for our community that doesn’t understand the complexities of addiction,” she explained.

Concerns have also been raised that over the last months, numerous right-wing organizations and politicians have used decriminalization as a means to increase police presence, despite no current evidence that more police force is needed in B.C.

Katt Cadieux, founder of Uniting Northern Drug Users UNDU’ing Stigma, told Global News that RCMP in the central B.C. city continues to confiscate drugs in quantities that are legally permitted and without leaving a paper trail of the incident.

“I’m not seeing the redirection that was supposed to take place, connecting [individuals] to supports and services,” she said. “I’m seeing an increase of police harassment.”

Meanwhile, 2023 has been the deadliest year for drug-related deaths in the province as numbers of opioid overdose-related deaths in the province continue to break new records. According to recent data released by B.C. Gov News, there have been 1,200 deaths attributed to toxic drugs in the first six months of this year.