British Columbians are split on the province’s plan to decriminalize possession of small quantities of hard drugs, according to a new poll.
The survey, conducted by Leger and provided exclusively to Global News, suggests the prospect of decriminalizing or legalizing hard drugs remains far less popular among British Columbians than the legalization of cannabis.
“When it comes to hard drugs, decriminalization is only receiving 50 per cent support. And if we’re talking about full legalization, it drops down to 35 per cent in B.C.,” said Steve Mossop, executive vice-president of Leger’s Vancouver office.
In May, B.C. became Canada’s first jurisdiction to be granted an exemption to Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of some hard drugs.
The three-year exemption will take effect on Jan. 31, 2023.
The move, which does not legalize the drugs, means people with 2.5 grams or less of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use will not be arrested, charged, or have their drugs seized.
“Our numbers are a little bit higher than the rest of the country, but still there’s quite a bit of opposition to decriminalization and legalization of hard drugs here in our province,” said Mossop.
The poll found that more British Columbians supported the idea of drug decriminalization than opposed it, and that support appeared to be growing.
Forty-nine per cent of respondents in B.C. said they supported the idea, compared to 39 per cent who were opposed. Support was up from 43 per cent in June, though the previous poll had a much smaller sample size.
However, support dropped off significantly when respondents were asked about full legalization of hard drugs.
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Just 35 per cent supported that idea, compared to 53 per cent who were opposed. The smaller poll in June found 26 per cent support for legalization.
Figures dropped off even more sharply when respondents were asked about the prospect of expanding decriminalization to include youth 12-17 years old.
A commanding 63 per cent of respondents was against it, compared to 25 per cent in favour.
“So there is a lack of support in B.C. especially as it relates to youth, and it is still to be sorted out what the implications are for any kind of decriminalization or legalization for that group of people,” Mossop said.
Cannabis legalization for adults, by contrast, maintained the support of 69 per cent of respondents.
Support for drug decriminalization was strongest among people aged 18-34 (60 per cent), people with a university education (55 per cent) along with men and people living in urban areas (52 per cent each).
Support was lowest among women (46 per cent), people aged 35-54 (44 per cent), people with college or high school education (45 and 47 per cent respectively), and people in rural and suburban environments (46 and 47 per cent respectively).
B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction says the decriminalization plan is just one of several parts of its approach to the deadly drug crisis.
“Criminalization drives people to hide their drug use and often use alone, and given the increasingly toxic drug supply – this can be fatal,” the ministry said in a statement.
“By removing the fear of criminalization, people will feel safer reaching out for care and support for substance use and addictions issues.”
The ministry also said there were no plans to change the eligibility age covered by the decriminalization exemption.
However, in its official submission to the federal government applying for the exemption, the province appeared to open the door to the possibility.
“Further work will address how decriminalization could be applied appropriately for youth and young adults aged 12 to 18,” the submission states.
“B.C. recognizes that youth are vulnerable to substance-use related harms and is committed to developing an evidence-based and equitable approach to addressing the needs of youth within its decriminalization framework.”
On Thursday, the BC Coroners Service reported that at least 195 people had died in May of toxic, illicit drugs, bringing the total number of confirmed drug deaths in B.C. this year to 940.
It was the highest number for the first five months of any calendar year in the province’s history.