B.C.’s drug decriminalization plan falls short: expert

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.

As B.C. gets set to decriminalize small amounts of certain drugs, some experts continue to question the province’s plan, saying it doesn’t go far enough.

Dr. Thomas Kerr, director of research at the BC Centre on Substance Use, says the idea of decriminalization is a good one but he adds the policy B.C. has developed was “poorly executed.”

He says there are a number of concerns with the approach the province is taking.

“I think there’s a lot of interest and excitement but, unfortunately, I don’t think this is a policy development that’s going to make a major difference really on any front,” he told CityNews.

“This is not a solution to the overdose epidemic and that’s really what we should be focused on right now, is saving lives.”

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Kerr admits this is a complicated issue. However, he feels drug users were not properly consulted and that decisions were made in a hurry.

“The result was that we ended up with thresholds — the amount of drugs that people can legally carry — as being far, far too low. This is the typical path in drug policy. People try and take a bold step forward and then we get hung up on our enforcement concerns and fall back into a prohibitionist mindset and come out with a policy that’s just not adequate,” he explained.

Kerr says he worries the 2.5-gram threshold will force people to make more transactions, putting them at further risk.

“It increases the risks that someone will encounter a source of supply that they’re not familiar with and it could be highly contaminated with fentanyl and other analogues and benzodiazepines, and that’s the kind of stuff that’s killing people every day in British Columbia,” Kerr said.

“The person who wants to stay under a certain threshold, let’s say 2.5 grams, maybe instead of going and buying five grams from a reliable source, having those drugs tested, ensuring that it’s a safe supply of drugs to use, they’ll instead buy two grams or less on multiple occasions, which increases the risk that they’re going to encounter a highly contaminated supply of drugs. We have to be very concerned and we have to rigorously evaluate this to see if that sort of thing is happening as well.”

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.

Last May, Health Canada approved B.C.’s request to be granted an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The period of decriminalization will be Jan. 31, 2023 to Jan. 31, 2026, unless a change is warranted.

However, the quantity allowed under the exemption has been a controversial one since it was announced. Initially, the B.C. government asked for a “cumulative binding threshold quantity at 4.5g.”

Some advocates have warned the 2.5-gram limit that was ultimately approved would be counterproductive and potentially dangerous to those who use drugs.

Kerr agrees, raising concerns that the pilot project will not lead to a meaningful drop in drug-related deaths.

The B.C. government 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.

The B.C. government continues to stress that decriminalization is not the same as legalization.

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