B.C.’s 3-year experiment with drug decriminalization starts Tuesday

Click to play video: 'Officials hope B.C.’s drug decriminalization plan will reduce stigma around drug use'
Officials hope B.C.’s drug decriminalization plan will reduce stigma around drug use
WATCH: Tuesday marks the first day of the province's drug decriminalization plan and officials are hoping it reduces the shame and stigma surrounding drug use. Richard Zussman has the details. – Jan 30, 2023

The B.C. government outlined details around the three-year trial for drug decriminalization on Monday.

Starting Tuesday, adults with up to two-and-a-half grams of drugs for personal use, including opioids, cocaine and MDMA, will not be arrested or charged.

The goal is to reduce the shame and stigma surrounding drug use, which the province says keeps people from accessing life-saving services.

Since 2016, toxic drugs have killed almost 11,000 people in B.C.

Click to play video: '‘Many people are dying alone’: Bonnie Henry on why drug decriminalization is important'
‘Many people are dying alone’: Bonnie Henry on why drug decriminalization is important

The B.C. government said this does not mean drugs are legalized.

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“The drugs covered under this exemption remain illegal,” the province said in a release. “The selling (or trafficking) of controlled substances remains illegal under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, regardless of the amount.”

Possession of illegal substances will remain illegal on K-to-12 school premises, at licensed child-care facilities, in certified airports, on Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters, for Canadian Forces members subject to the Code of Service Discipline, in a motor vehicle or watercraft operated by a minor, when the illegal substances are readily accessible to the operator of a motor vehicle or watercraft and for anyone under the age of 18.

“In many cases, illegal drug use continues to be prohibited on private property, including places like shopping malls, bars and cafes,” the province said. “Police retain legal authority to remove people from these premises under the authority of the Trespass Act if open drug use is occurring against the wishes of the owner.”

Click to play video: '‘The goal is to reduce the stigma’: B.C.’s drug decriminalization trial starts Tuesday'
‘The goal is to reduce the stigma’: B.C.’s drug decriminalization trial starts Tuesday

The provincial government said it has hired health authority-specific positions to bridge the gaps between those using illicit drugs and organizations working in the community to help them.

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It has also worked with BC RCMP and municipal police departments to train officers and provide guidance about decimalization and has invested in more treatment and recovery centres and resources.

The province said this is just one step in fighting the toxic drug crisis.

It has also expanded access to low- or no-cost counselling services, opened 14 Foundry youth centres across the province and expanded treatment and recovery services for everyone.

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‘I was so worried about how everyone would perceive my husband’s death’ 

One expert told Global News that decriminalization is a positive step but more needs to be done.

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“It should be accompanied by better access to legal, medical-grade, pharmaceutical-grade drugs,” Dr. Jade Boyd, a scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use Research, said. “When we’re buying on an illegal market, nothing’s assured in regards to the quality and the quantity of the drug so deaths will continue to increase if people continue to buy on the illegal market.”

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Boyd is also critical of the limit of two-and-a-half grams, saying it does not reflect the realities of drug use and purchase practices.

“There needs to be a further expansion of harm reduction and treatment services — without those, it’s not going to do much,” she added.

Click to play video: 'Lessons from Portland about hard drug decriminalization'
Lessons from Portland about hard drug decriminalization

Global News also spoke to a former drug user who said illicit drugs should not be available on the street, period.

“It needs to be taken off the street altogether, put in the hands of doctors, addiction workers or whatever, and do it the right way,” Shawna Taylor said. “Because these toxic drugs are gonna be the same.”
Health Canada has granted the province of B.C. an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act until Jan. 31, 2026.

“This way I’m not going to be getting sent off to jail quite often,” Nick Marin told Global News Sunday.

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Noting a gram of fentanyl is “just enough to send you off to jail”, Marin said he supports the idea of decriminalization – after 20 years of using heroin and now fentanyl.

“It’s going to help a lot of people not do so much crime.”

Click to play video: 'Do Canadians support the decriminalization of hard drugs?'
Do Canadians support the decriminalization of hard drugs?

Downtown Eastside resident Naz Gemelas, who has used drugs in the past, said the Vancouver Police Department has been better than some law enforcement agencies in terms of recognizing drug use and addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal one.

“Dealing with the main issue as an illness more so than a crime is what I find the most valuable,” Gemelas said.

“We would never charge somebody for a small amount of personal use,” said Const. Tania Visintin with the Vancouver Police Department.

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Click to play video: 'B.C. launching illicit drug decriminalization trial'
B.C. launching illicit drug decriminalization trial

Visintin confirmed Vancouver police have, for many years, had a de facto policy not to arrest people for personal drug possession.

Cases, where drug possession is the only charge recommended by the VPD, dropped from 10 in 2020 to six in 2021 and just three last year.

Decriminalization of small amounts of drugs will not impact the way they operate, according to Visintin, who said police will instead keep the focus on violent and organized crime groups.

“Our target, our aim, our goals are to go after people that produce drugs that fuel the overdose crisis.”

“It’s killing a lot of people,” said Marin, who has lost many friends to fentanyl.

Click to play video: 'Decriminalization plan for B.C. drug users'
Decriminalization plan for B.C. drug users

Kristy Lambert, an overdose prevention site worker who also uses drugs, doesn’t believe anything will change with decriminalization.

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“There’s not like a door or a number to call to go to treatment right now, like what’s going to be different on Tuesday,” Lambert told Global News Sunday.

Marin said he’s already in the process of going to treatment for his addiction.

“It’s been over 20 years now, so I’ve had enough.”

Others like Nicole Kannt, said when “you’re addicted”, treatment is not always an option when you need it.

“For myself personally, when I want to get clean, I want to do it now,” Kannt told Global News Sunday.

“I don’t want to wait a week or two weeks because I change my mind right.”

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In a statement, NDP Mental Health and Harm Reductions Critic Gord Johns said this decriminalization approach should be adopted across the country.

“Outside of B.C., 14 Canadians die every single day because of the toxic drug crisis,” Johns said. “And with the high costs and long waitlists to get help, people are being forced to turn to our already overwhelmed Emergency Rooms. Canadians want to see a real plan for mental health and addiction supports that include the provision of a safe regulated supply for users, on-demand treatment services and recovery and prevention programs across the country.”

Johns criticized the current Liberal government, saying it pledged $875 million to the provinces and territories for the Canada Mental Health Transfer but so far that money has yet to materialize.

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