B.C. asks federal government for exemption to decriminalize illicit drugs

Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen are shown on June 20, 2012. How governments fund the country's fight against the opioid crisis may contribute to "a lack of progress" on the issue, says newly disclosed documents that probe an alternative financing model eyed by Health Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy. The Canadian Press file

British Columbia is asking the federal government to grant the province an exemption under federal law to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

If the request is granted B.C. would become the first jurisdiction in Canada with the exemption.

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson sent a letter to Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu on Feb. 3 formally asking for the exemption. The request is in line with Premier John Horgan’s repeated calls for the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs.

“Although B.C. has made significant progress implementing a wide-ranging overdose response, people who use drugs continue to face obstacles accessing these services. In particular, the stigma around drug use along with the fear of criminal sanctions are barriers preventing people from accessing life-saving services,” Malcolmson writes.

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“I look forward to working with you on this important initiative, and the many other ways we can work together to help save lives.”

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a growing number overdose deaths in the province. B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe is scheduled to provide an update on Thursday of how many people died of illicit drug deaths in 2020.

Through November, the province has recorded 1,548 overdose drug deaths. In 2018 1,549 people died, the highest annual number of illicit drug deaths in B.C. on record.

Lapointe’s press conference can be watched live on BC1 and here on the Global BC website.

On July 20, 2020, Horgan wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, urging federal action to decriminalize simple possession of hard drugs for personal use. This has been supported by various chiefs of police, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Lapointe.

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s top doctor calls on federal government to decriminalize people who use drugs, provide safer supply'
B.C.’s top doctor calls on federal government to decriminalize people who use drugs, provide safer supply

British Columbia has already eased some rules, allowing for prescription opioids to be given to illicit drug users. This has included new clinical guidance published with the BC Centre on Substance Use for prescribing substances to support COVID-19 related to self-isolation, including prescription alternatives to drugs including opioids, stimulants, benzodiazepines, alcohol and nicotine.

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“The pandemic has only added urgency – we know that during the pandemic, the illicit drug supply has become much more toxic, attendance at overdose prevention services is down 40 per cent, and more people are using alone, leading to tragic increases in overdose deaths,” Malcolmson writes.

“Decriminalizing individuals in possession of drugs for personal use would be a significant step in saving lives, reducing stigma, and treating problematic drug use as a health issue and not a moral or criminal issue.”

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