Small amounts of illicit drugs to be decriminalized in B.C. Tuesday

British Columbia begins a three-year pilot project, decriminalizing small amounts of hard drugs. Liza Yuzda has more on how police and the province plan to make it work.

By Sonia Aslam, Liza Yuzda, and Hana Mae Nassar

B.C. is one day away from making Canadian history, as it gets set to become the first province to decriminalize small amounts of certain drugs.

As of Tuesday, people aged 18 and up won’t be arrested or charged, and their drugs won’t be seized if they’re found in possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit substances, including cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, and opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and morphine.

“Under this exemption, people found in possession of a small amount of certain illegal drugs for personal use will not face criminal charges, fines, or have their drugs confiscated. Instead, they will be offered information about health and social supports, and local treatment and recovery services. Instead of being treated as criminals, they will be treated with care and compassion,” B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside explained Monday.

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs is a critical step in tackling the toxic drug crisis. It will help to break down stigma, the fear and shame around substance use that prevents so many people from reaching out for life saving supports.

“Substance use is a public health matter, not a criminal justice one,” Whiteside continued.

Decriminalization is being made possible after Health Canada approved last May B.C.’s request to be granted an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

“We are working in tandem to try and save lives. Despite these efforts, the situation has never been more urgent. Since 2016, more than 30,000 people have died of an overdose in Canada, with 2021 being the deadliest year to date, and according to the most recent national data, there were approximately 20 opioid toxicity deaths per day in the first six months of 2022,” federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said Monday.

Decriminalization in B.C. will be in effect from Jan. 31, 2023 until Jan. 31, 2026. Throughout this period, the governments say they will work together to monitor and evaluate what is happening to ensure the process is “meeting the desired outcomes of decriminalization and there’s no unintended consequences.”

“We hope this will help people feel safer about getting those life-saving services and programs and talking to their friends, talking to their health care provider, and help our health care system and keeping people alive and connected to the health and social supports they need,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry explained.

She admits the process “will not be perfect.”

“And it’s not going to change the crises that we’re dealing with overnight. But it is a philosophical and an important step that helps us take that next [step to] work together to make sure that we are doing everything we can and that there are many different streams that people can follow. We will be adjusting as we go.”

Decriminalization is not legalization

The B.C. government is stressing this process is not the same as legalization.

As we were clear last year, this exemption is not legalization. All activities with illegal drugs, including production, trafficking, import, and export, remain illegal, even if conducted with the drugs listed in the exemption in amounts under the 2.5 grams threshold,” Bennett said. 

I will also assure you that since announcing the exemption, our government has been working with British Columbia as they put in place measures to support successful implementation, including law enforcement guidance and training and increasing the health and social service supports.”

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In its application to Health Canada in November 2021, the B.C. government said its ultimate goal was to “remove shame that often prevents people from reaching out for life-saving help.”

It also initially asked for a threshold of up to 4.5 grams to be considered exempt. While the exemption only allows for up to 2.5 grams, the federal government has said that number can be adjusted as the three-year pilot project is carried out.

As we take a collective moment to grieve, we must also find the strength to do more — more for the victims of this crisis and more for those at risk of future overdose and other substance use harms There is no one size fits all solution to preventing or reducing overdose deaths. But this exemption is a start,” Bennett said. 

The exemption for decriminalization 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.

The province notes that some private properties will also continue to ban illicit substances, and as such, “police retain legal authority to remove people from these premises under the authority of the Trespass Act if open drug use is occurring against the wishes of the owner.”

Drugs will also remain illegal for minors — no matter the amount.

“Of course, one of our top priorities is to ensure that young people are protected as we implement this exemption. And we want parents to know that we are always discouraging youth from experimenting with drugs. We want parents to know that we’ve developed resources about decriminalization to support them, and educators and school staff when they’re talking to children and youth about drugs,” Whiteside said. 

What has B.C. done to prepare for decriminalization?

In preparation for decriminalization, the B.C. government says it has hired “health-authority specific positions” through which workers will focus on “building connections with local service providers and people referred by police.”

It adds it is also increasing voluntary treatment and recovery spaces, with investments made in these areas.

“We know that access to treatment remains a gap, and we are committed to working with provinces and territories to ensure equitable access to treatment and support for a healing journey that is trauma-informed and culturally safe,” Bennett said on behalf of the federal government. 

Meanwhile, the province explains it has worked with policing jurisdictions in B.C. “to develop a range of training resources and practical guidance,” all available to thousands of officers. Training will be done in two phases, with the government expecting this to be complete by the end of 2023.

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While new training resources and guidance have been developed, the province says not all policing jurisdictions have made them mandatory for frontline officers.

It notes while forces like the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department have mandated the training, they have not said what the deadline is for members to complete the work.

“So far, more than two thirds of police officers across the province have taken this training and are ready to implement decriminalization on the ground,” Whiteside said. And we’re rolling out a broad public information and education campaign on digital platforms on social media, radio, and Google search.”

Breaking the stigma

Kathryn Botchford knows the pain of losing a loved one to drugs and the stigma that shrouds drug use all too well. Her husband, Jason, was a well-known sports reporter in Vancouver who died in the spring of 2019.

“I was with Jason for 17 years, so when I discovered how he died, I thought there must be a mistake. Jason doesn’t do drugs. We have three young kids, and he knows the risks. But I was wrong. He died alone using an illegal substance,” Kathryn recalled.

“I was not only left terrorizing myself with every memory trying to make sense of it. But his secret became my secret, which became this harboring shame that I carried for a year. I was so fearful that people would judge him and tear down his legacy. I was fearful that people would judge me for not knowing. And even worse, I feared people would treat my children’s loss of their father as insignificant because of how he died. It was in those moments that I realized how much shame Jason must have carried and why he hid his substance use from everyone. The coroner advised me how common it is for middle aged men to hide substance use and their families are often in the dark.”

Kathryn says the stigma around substance use can be dehumanizing, leaving people to suffer in silence.

By not telling her children the truth, Kathryn says she realized she was “enabling an environment of secrecy,” and that by doing that, she was “unconsciously creating shame.”

She admits the conversation she eventually had with her and Jason’s children was the “most difficult” she’d ever had. But it was necessary.

“We all have a responsibility to change the narrative on substance use and the stigma associated with it. I stand here today to tell my story, with hopes it will give courage to others to start their conversation about addiction and substance use and perhaps through those conversations, it will lead to a healthier alternative.”

Professor Eugenia Oveida-Joekes with the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health feels decriminalization is a step in the right direction.

“This is not something that you have in every country across the world, so this is good news and it’s a very good start to start building upon and improve how we address drug decriminalization.”

As much as she backs the idea, she says it should come with a condition.

“See this measure as part of a larger number of measures that we all need to be accountable for, that they all work and they’re revised year after year. You cannot expect one single measure that is going to have a specific impact. It’s unrealistic and it’s going to hurt us as a community. You have to look at it as a whole. We want to bring decriminalization as part of a quantity of measures and quality of measures that is going to support British Columbians and Canadians to move forward,” she explained.

Oveida-Joekes says breaking the stigma around drug use is key. “For you, it might be a drug but for the person who’s using it — it’s their medication that is helping them meet their needs. It is for mental health issues or because their addiction needs are not being met.”

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Vancouver police say, from their perspective, not much will change.

“Decriminalization, along with safe supply and public health supports, has the potential to address harms associated with substance use, reduce stigma, prevent overdose deaths, and increase access to health and social services,” Sgt. Steve Addison said.

“For many years we have had a de facto policy not to arrest people for personal drug possession. In that sense, decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use will not impact the way we operate. Instead, we will continue to focus our energy by targeting the violent and organized crime groups that produce and traffic the harmful street drugs that continue to fuel the overdose crisis.”

While many say decriminalization is a step in the right direction, some advocates have warned 2.5-gram limits are counterproductive and potentially dangerous to those who use drugs.

Illicit drugs in B.C.

Opioid deaths were declared a public health emergency back in April of 2016. Since then, B.C. has set multiple records.

Recent statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service show fentanyl has been detected in the majority of deaths.

 (Courtesy B.C. Coroners Service)

(Courtesy B.C. Coroners Service)

“Preliminary data suggests that the proportion of illicit drug toxicity deaths for which illicit fentanyl was detected (alone or in combination with other drugs) was approximately 82 per cent in 2022 and 86 per cent in 2021,” reads a report from the service. Numbers for 2022 aren’t out yet.

More than 10,000 people have died since the emergency was declared.

The province says decriminalization is “just one tool” in its fight against the ongoing toxic drug crisis.

With files from Mike Lloyd

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