British Columbia Is Decriminalizing Small Amounts of Drugs

(Vancouver, British Columbia) — Canada’s government said Tuesday it will allow British Columbia to try a three-year experiment in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs, seeking to stem a record number of overdose deaths by easing fear of arrest by users in need of help.

The policy approved by federal officials doesn’t legalize the substances, but Canadians in the Pacific coast province who possess up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs for personal use will not be arrested or charged.

Three-year exemption will take effect on Jan. 31, and it will cover drug users aged 18 or over. It includes opioids and methamphetamines as well as MDMA (also known by ecstasy).

“Stigma and fear of criminalization cause some people to hide their drug use, use alone, or use in other ways that increase the risk of harm. This is why the Government of Canada treats substance use as a health issue, not a criminal one,” tweeted Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.

The province’s health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said that “we are taking an important step forward to removing that fear and shame and stigma.”

“This is not one single thing that will reverse this crisis but it will make a difference,” she added.

Dana Larsen, a drug policy reform activist, called the announcement “a step in the right direction,” but said he would prefer to see development of a safe drug supply.

Continue reading: Why are people more likely to overdose on Opioids?

“It’s not going to stop anybody dying of an overdose or drug poisoning,” Larsen said. “The drugs are still going to be contaminated.”

“I think we need stores where you can go in and find legal heroin, legal cocaine and legal ecstasy and things like that for adults,” he said. “The real solution to this problem is to treat it like alcohol and tobacco.”

Alissa Greer is an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University with a doctorate of public health. She believes that a controlled decriminalization could reduce overdose deaths.

She said it would be good for users to be able to obtain drugs from “a regulated supply through various models, whether that’s a prescription model, a pharmacy model, more of a compassion club model … rather than going down to 7-Eleven and buying heroin.”

British Columbia is the first Canadian province to apply for an exemption from Canada’s drug laws.

Portugal, in 2001 became the first country to legalize all drug consumption. People who are caught possessing less than a 10 day supply of any drug will be sent to the local commission. This consists of a physician, lawyer, and social worker. They learn about medical treatment options as well as available services.

Oregon became the first state in America to legalize hard drugs. Under the change, possession of controlled substances is a newly created Class E “violation,” instead of a felony or misdemeanor. The maximum fine is $100, but the penalty can be waived by calling a hotline to receive a medical assessment. Calls can be made to access addiction counseling or other services.

Carolyn Bennett is the federal minister of mental and addictions. She said that this experiment in British Columbia can be used to model other Canadian jurisdictions.

“This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada,” she said. “Real-time adjustments will be made upon receiving analysis of any data that indicates a need to change.”

In British Columbia there has been over 9400 deaths caused by toxic illegal drugs. The current record is 2,224 for 2021.

Kennedy Stewart, Vancouver mayor, said that he receives emails each Monday about drug-related deaths. He received nine of them last week and twelve the week before. One week, he said it was his family.

“I felt like crying, and I still feel like crying. This is a big, big thing,” Stewart said.

Federal officials set a 2.5-gram limit for this experiment, which is less than the requested 4.5 grams by British Columbia. The higher amount already had been called too low a threshold by some drug-user groups that have said the province didn’t adequately consult them.

Sheila Malcolmson, British Columbia’s minister of mental health, said fear of being criminalized has led many people to hide their addiction and use drugs alone.

“Using alone can mean dying alone, particularly in this climate of tragically increased illicit drug toxicity,” Malcolmson said.

She stated that the British Columbia Coroner reported that five to seven people per day die from overdoses in British Columbia. The half-millionth of them occur in private residences, and often are committed by people who are not with their families.

“Fear and shame keeps drug use a secret,” she said.

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