Canada’s BC moves to decriminalise small amounts of illicit drugs

The westernmost province of British Columbia says the move, the first of its kind in Canada, aims to help tackle the opioid crisis.

A cyclist rides past hundreds of flags symbolising people who have died from drug overdoses in BC
A cyclist rides past hundreds of flags symbolising the more than 10,000 people who have died of toxic drug overdoses in British Columbia, Canada [File: Jesse Winter/Reuters]

The Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) will decriminalise small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use, the government has announced, in a first-of-its-kind measure in Canada that aims to tackle the opioid crisis.

In a statement on Tuesday, the BC government said the province has been granted a three-year exemption to Canada’s federal drug control statute, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Adults aged 18 and above who are in possession of 2.5gm (0.09 ounces) of certain illicit substances – including heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA – for personal use will not be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized, the government said in a factsheet.

The exemption will come into effect on January 31, 2023 and last until January 31, 2026.

“This is a very important day,” Sheila Malcolmson, BC’s minister of mental health and addictions, said during a news conference in Vancouver on Tuesday afternoon.

community members hand out clean, tested drug doses at a demonstration
Community members from the Drug User Liberation Front hand out clean, tested doses of drugs at a demonstration in Vancouver, British Columbia [File: Jesse Winter/Reuters]

“The federal government’s approval of British Columbia’s request to decriminalise people who use drugs is a major step in changing how we view addiction and drug use in British Columbia. It reflects our government’s agreement that substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one.”

Canada has reported nearly 27,000 deaths from opioid overdoses between January 2016 and September 2021, according to government figures, while the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the crisis.

Between April 2020 and March 2021, the country saw 7,224 opioid deaths – a 95 percent increase compared with the same period a year earlier. Most of the deaths occurred in BC, Alberta and Ontario.

But harm reduction workers and drug decriminalisation advocates say the BC exemption announced on Tuesday does not do enough to tackle a nationwide crisis that they argue needs immediate action.

“2.5 grams is bogus. This is far to low. Why also wait until January 2023?!? Why not immediately,” Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker and drug policy expert based in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, wrote on Twitter. “The Liberals prove once again that they won’t commit to decriminalization. This isn’t just an issue local to BC.”

In January, Toronto Public Health also requested (PDF) a federal exemption to decriminalise personal possession of illicit drugs, citing an “unprecedented” increase in opioid-related deaths. The city saw 551 confirmed opioid deaths from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021 – a 57 percent increase from the same period a year earlier, the health agency said.

“Criminalization makes it difficult for people who use drugs to access harm reduction services, increasing the risk of injury, disease, and overdose. Even more, criminal records make it hard for people to find a job and a place to live,” it said.

“Canada’s current drug laws have resulted in the disproportionate criminalization of Black and Indigenous people. As such, decriminalization is an important and necessary part of a comprehensive approach to the crisis.”

Other experts on Tuesday also urged Canada to expand drug decriminalisation, stressing that the opioid crisis goes beyond BC alone.

“People who use drugs in #NovaScotia and throughout Canada deserve the benefits derived from drug decriminalization,” Jamie Livingston, an associate professor of criminology at St Mary’s University in Halifax, wrote on Twitter.

“The harms of stigma and criminalization don’t stop at the BC border.”

Source: Al Jazeera