British Columbia has become the first province to be granted an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to remove criminal penalties for possession of some hard drugs.
The three-year exemption is for people who possess a small amount of certain illicit substances for personal use.
The exemption will be in effect from Jan. 31, 2023, to Jan. 31, 2026, throughout B.C.
“Substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” B.C. Minister Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said.
“By decriminalizing people who use drugs, we will break down the stigma that stops people from accessing life-saving support and services.”
The B.C. government will now work with the federal government, health authorities, law enforcement, people with lived and living experience, Indigenous partners and community organizations to establish indicators to establish outcomes.
This exemption is not legalization.
The substances remain illegal, but adults who have 2.5 grams or less of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized.
Instead, police will offer information on available health and social supports and will help with referrals when requested
“The shocking number of lives lost to the overdose crisis requires bold actions and significant policy change. I have thoroughly reviewed and carefully considered both the public health and public safety impacts of this request,” federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said.
B.C. is the only province to have formally requested an exemption from the federal government.
The exemption only covers adults 18 years and older.
“This exemption is a vital step to keeping people alive and help connect them with the health and social support they need,” B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
“By removing the fear and shame of drug use, we will be able to remove barriers that prevent Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions people from accessing harm reduction services and treatment programs.”
More than 7,700 British Columbians have died from illicit drug overdoses since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in these deaths, mainly attributed to an increase in social isolation, using drugs alone and closed international borders that cut the supply.
The current toxic drug supply has made the last 20 months the province’s most deadly.
The province provided a 43-page report to the federal government as part of the exemption application, detailing the recent increase in deaths linked to higher concentrations of fentanyl.
In addition to the exemption, the province said it continues its other work to prevent illicit-drug deaths, including prevention, prescribed safer supply and other harm-reduction efforts.
The move has the support of the organization representing chiefs of police across the country, as well as B.C.’s chief coroner.
“Criminalizing members of our communities who use drugs has resulted in decades of causing further harm to many who are already suffering from mental or physical health challenges and/or the effects of emotional or physical trauma,” Lisa Lapointe said in the news release.