Drug decriminalization pilot project begins in British Columbia

By Ian Burns

Law360 Canada (January 31, 2023, 2:31 PM EST) -- B.C. has become the first province to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs, which it is calling a critical step to end the stigma that prevents people with substance-use issues from reaching out for help.

Beginning Jan. 31, adults 18 years and older in the province will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use. Instead, police will offer information on available health and social supports, as well as local treatment and recovery options.

Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, said criminalization drives people to use alone, which can be fatal given the increasing toxicity of the drug supply.

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving supports,” she said. “This is a vital step to get more people connected to the services and supports as the province continues to add them at an unprecedented rate.”

The decriminalization pilot runs until Jan. 31, 2026, but the province noted the exemption does not mean drugs are legalized and drug possession in any amount will continue to be a criminal offence on school grounds and at licensed childcare facilities. Decriminalization does not apply to youth 17 and younger, who are subject to the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett

Ottawa granted B.C.’s request for an exemption from criminal penalties under s. 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act last May. Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said substance use is a public health issue that is shaped by “complex and interrelated factors,” such as experiences of trauma, income, access to stable housing and impacts on racialized communities.

“By supporting British Columbia in this exemption to the Act, our government is providing the province with the ability to help divert people away from the criminal justice system and toward the health and social services they need,” she said.

Bennett said Ottawa will continue to work with the province to monitor, collect and analyze data to assess the impacts of decriminalization on public health and safety. The federal government has also released a letter of requirements to support the exemption, which emphasizes improving access to health and social services, providing law enforcement training and guidance, and consulting with people who use drugs, law enforcement, racialized communities and other key stakeholders.

“It’s clear that innovative solutions must be implemented in order to save lives,” she said. “Canada is facing an unprecedented and deadly overdose crisis and increasingly toxic illegal drug supply. This crisis has, and continues to be heartbreaking for families, friends, and communities across the country.”

But Elenore Sturko, the B.C. Liberals’ shadow minister for mental health, addictions and recovery, said there has been a “conspicuous lack of clarity from David Eby’s NDP government about how B.C. will meet its obligations to roll out the policy, and what steps it’s taking to increase supports for those suffering from addiction.”

“Harm reduction efforts like decriminalization form only part of the comprehensive approach that’s needed to help put an end to this crisis that continues to claim six lives a day,” she said. “Not only is the NDP unprepared to roll out this untried policy, but for the last five years, it’s also failed to place any emphasis on the implementation and funding of prevention, recovery, and treatment programs. People suffering from addiction must be able to immediately access the services they need when they need them, and that isn’t happening under the leadership of David Eby’s NDP.”

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, nearly 2,300 people lost their lives to toxic drugs in the province in 2022. More information about drug decriminalization in British Columbia can be found here.

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