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B.C. to decriminalize small amounts of drugs, first province granted exemption

B.C. has been granted an exemption that will allow it to decriminalize small amounts of certain drugs for personal possession. Liza Yuzda reports.

By Hana Mae Nassar and Denise Wong

B.C. has been granted an exemption that will allow it to decriminalize small amounts of certain drugs for personal possession.

The province officially submitted its application to Health Canada for a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), pursuant to Section 56(1), in November 2021. B.C. noted the ultimate goal was to “remove shame that often prevents people from reaching out for life-saving help.”

The exemption will apply to all adults over the age of 18 within B.C. Personal possession only up to a cumulative amount of 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA are included in this.

“The crisis has worsened. The increasingly toxic illicit drug supply has exacerbated the already heartbreaking loss of life,” federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said on Tuesday.

“For far too long this wave of loss has been the reality here in British Columbia and across the country.”

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The exemption period begins Jan. 31, 2023 and is set to be in place for three years, ending on Jan. 31, 2026. Health Canada notes the exemption may be revoked or replaced by another. During this period, there will be no arrests or charges against people who are found to have 2.5 grams or less of the substances listed above for personal use. The drugs will also not be seized.

The start date has been set for next year to give the province time for implementation.

B.C. is now the first province to be granted an exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson says the request to decriminalize people who use drugs represents “a major step in how we view addiction and drug use in British Columbia.”

“It reflects our governments’ agreement that substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” Malcolmson added Tuesday.

“Shame and fear keep people from accessing the care that they need. And the fear of being criminalized has led many people to hide their addiction and use drugs alone, and using alone can mean dying along, particularly in this climate of tragically increased illicit drug toxicity,” the B.C. minister continued, adding B.C.’s coroner notes between five and seven people a day are dying of toxic drugs, and that “half of these deaths are taking place inside a private residence, often when people are alone.”

Bennett says granting B.C. an exemption to federal drug laws is part of “the first steps” following a series of recommendations from an expert task force, which “called for bold action and significant policy change.”

“Minister Malcolmson and I want to be very clear: This is not legalization. We have not taken this decision lightly,” added Bennett. “This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada, and with it comes great responsibility for the health, safety, and well-being of the people in British Columbia,” Bennett said, adding this will serve as “a template for other jurisdictions across Canada.”

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Getting to this point has been the result of many groups and agencies working together, officials note.

For Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, it’s a milestone that didn’t seem possible at the time just years ago.

“It’s hard to believe that we’ve actually got here. When the decriminalization report came out in 2018, there was not a lot of support for it at any level, though at the ground roots level it was there. Today is an important day for people who use drugs, for their friends, their families, our communities, and people who work hard every day to support people who use drugs,” she said, adding stigma and shame leads to people isolating.

“We know that shame is a very powerful emotion and it keeps people hiding those things … for fear of being labelled a criminal. It also means that they don’t reach out to health professionals for support or to others who may provide them with the advice and support they need. With the increasingly toxic drug supply that we have seen, particularly in the past few years, we know that this means it can be fatal,” B.C.’s top doctor added.

Drug decriminalization restrictions

The new measures do have limits.

Health Canada says the exemptions will not apply to adults while on K-12 school premises, on premises of licensed child care facilities, at airports, or on coast guard vessels and aircraft. Canadian Armed Forces members are also subject to Code of Service Discipline related to drug possession.

Health Canada notes the exemption doesn’t apply “in a personal motor vehicle or watercraft that is operated by a minor, whether or not the vehicle or watercraft is in motion.”

Possession of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA over 2.5 grams remains restricted, as does possession of controlled substances listed in Schedules I, II, or III of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act at any amount.

Possession and production of the drugs listed in the exemption, as well as other controlled substances, for the purposes of trafficking, import, and export is also still prohibited, regardless of the amount.

Even under the exemption period, opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA are not to be moved between provinces, territories, or international borders.

B.C. requirements as part of Health Canada exemption

As part of its exemption, B.C. has made a number of commitments, including consultation with Indigenous people, people who use drugs, law enforcement, and racialized communities; as well as training and guidance for police agencies.

The province has also promised to put together a public education campaign to explain the exemption to British Columbians.

B.C., meanwhile, will be monitoring and evaluating the situation to ensure progress.

“Throughout this exemption period, our government will work with the province to analyze the data and evidence and ensure that this exemption continues to be in the best interest for the health and safety of British Columbians,” Bennett said. “Real-time adjustments will be made upon receipt and analysis of any data that indicates the need to change.”

Exemption quantities fall short of initial request to Health Canada

The province officially submitted its application to the federal agency in November. In its submission, B.C. asked for a “cumulative binding threshold quantity at 4.5g with no drug seizures, arrests, or charges for simple possession at or below this amount,” that would apply to opioids, powder cocaine, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.

However, in April of this year, there were suggestions Health Canada was considering a lower threshold than what was initially requested.

Some advocates have warned 2.5-gram limits are counterproductive and potentially dangerous to those who use drugs.

Leslie McBain with Moms Stop the Harm says while Tuesday’s announcement is something she and many others “have been waiting for for a long time,” it falls short of what is actually needed to address the crisis.

“We have been working with the feds and with the provincial government on the details. The part that we’re not that happy with is having to deal with the 2.5 grams threshold, which is a very small amount and has a lot of possible repercussions that are not that positive,” she told CityNews moments after the announcement.

“Two-point-five grams of drugs, of substances, illicit substances, for people who use drugs is small. And people who are constant users, people who may have an addiction, people who even are just experimenting or are using drugs on the weekend … the dynamic there will be that the people who are using drugs every day will have to possibly go out more than once in a day to access the drugs they want and need, thereby increasing their vulnerability to the toxic supply, and also increasingly their vulnerability to interactions with the police,” McBain explained, adding she feels this will result in a “negative effect.”

McBain also takes issue with some of the language around policing, saying she and others feel “police have way too much power.”

“They should not even really be involved in people using drugs. This is a private and health matter, not a criminal justice matter, and police should just step back — especially for these small amounts.”

However, when it comes to addressing stigma, McBain says this move is one on the right track.

“Decriminalization — just the word itself will help reduce stigma. Often the public is confused, for good reason, by what decriminalization means,” McBain explained.

But overall, McBain and Moms Stop the Harm note the only thing that will stop deaths is a safe, regulated, legal supply.

She says she and other advocates have met with Malcolmson to express their concerns, adding decriminalization alone won’t stop people from dying.

“The only thing that will save lives is taking away some of the black market, as much as we can, and implementing a safe supply,” she told CityNews, adding she also wants to see the threshold increased.

B.C. declared a public health emergency in April of 2016 over a record number of opioid-related deaths. Since then, more than 9,500 people have died, with experts warning the toxicity of drugs has only worsened over the years.

The latest figures available show 165 people lost their lives in B.C. to toxic drugs in March 2022. That figure represents a five per cent decrease from the same month last year, as well as a five per cent decrease from February 2022.

“Every life lost is a tragedy,” Malcolmson said on May 3, 2022, adding the province “remains committed to doing what it takes to turn the tide on this crisis.”

Alberta’s premier, meanwhile, is not a fan of this approach to dealing with toxic drugs, calling it a “slippery slope.”

“We have not been consulted, nor have any of the provinces apart from B.C. that I know of, and yet this does have will have national implications,” Premier Jason Kenney said.

“We’ve gone from the prime minister saying seven months ago that he would not even consider this to legalizing hard drugs in a province of 5 million people right next door to us. I don’t think it’s hard to see where this is going. And where it’s going, I believe, is in a counterproductive direction.”

Kenney adds he “welcomes” a discussion with the feds about increasing treatment and recovery supports, but argues decriminalization of simple possession is not a solution.

In its latest budget, the federal government had outlined $100 million for Health Canada over three years to address the opioid crisis. The government put forward $116 million in 2021 – but deaths from illicit drug poisoning still broke records.

“While approving this request is significant, it must be seen as one additional tool to be used in the ongoing comprehensive response to the crisis,” Bennett added Tuesday.

The government has also announced “an additional $11.78 million in federal funding for 14 projects through Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program” in B.C.

If you plan to use, it’s recommended you don’t do so alone. The province recommends people download the free Lifeguard app, carry naloxone, or visit a supervised consumption or overdose prevention site for free drug checking or other harm-reduction services. You can find more supports in B.C. here.

If you suspect an overdose, call 911 right away.

-With files from Kier Junos

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