Facing soaring levels of opioid deaths since the pandemic began in 2020, the Canadian government announced Tuesday it would temporarily decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamines, in the western province of British Columbia that has been ground zero for the country’s overdoses.
The exemption, announced by the country’s drug regulator on Tuesday, comes four years after the country legalized the possession and consumption of recreational marijuana and puts Canada among a small group of countries worldwide that have taken steps to decriminalize illicit drugs.
The announcement was applauded by families of deceased opioid users and by peer support workers, and was supported by police associations and British Columbia’s chief coroner, but many harm reduction activists demanded the government go further by expanding the exemption across the country and increasing the threshold to include larger quantities.
British Columbia declared drug-related deaths a public health emergency in 2016. Since the pandemic, rates of opioid use in the western province flared to alarming levels, with a record 2,224 deaths in 2021, compared to 1,767 in 2020, and one of the highest rates in North America.
“For too many years, the ideological opposition to harm reduction has cost lives,” said Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of mental health and addictions, at a news conference on Tuesday.
“Today is a very important day and it is hard to believe that we actually got here,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, adding that when her report calling for the decriminalization of people who use drugs was published in 2018, “there was not a lot of support for it, at any level.”
British Columbia has been a leader in Canada’s harm reduction movement. It opened the first supervised injection site in North America in 2003 in Vancouver, over a decade after it launched the province’s first needle exchange program.
The exemption will allow drug users to carry up to 2.5 grams total of four listed substances for personal use — opioids, cocaine, methamphetamines, and MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly.
People over the age of 18 found carrying these drugs, at the prescribed amounts and for their personal use, will not be charged, arrested, or have their drugs seized by the police. Instead, interactions with officers will be used as an opportunity to, if the person wishes, be referred to local health and social services.
The exemption will go into effect on Jan. 31, 2023, and will expire after three years.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Guy Felicella, a peer clinical adviser at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use in Vancouver, who, starting at 16, spent decades in and out of jail for drug-related crimes. “Arresting me and incarcerating me for all those years for using drugs never stopped me once from using drugs — even when I went to prison. It didn’t do anything except create stigma and discrimination, shame.”
He added, “It’s unfortunate that it’s just in British Columbia, right, and that it’s not right across Canada.”
The exemption will not apply in certain settings, including airports, schools, child care centers, aboard Coast Guard vessels or helicopters, or for military members.
The city of Vancouver previously also applied for an exemption, which is still under review with Health Canada, in March 2021. If approved, the city’s exemption would apply to all amphetamines. Ms. Bennett, the federal minister, said British Columbia’s successful application could provide an example for other municipalities moving to decriminalize drugs for personal possession, including Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton.