Canada decriminalizes opioids and other drugs in British Columbia
By Vjosa Isai and Catherine Porter
Facing soaring levels of opioid deaths since the pandemic began in 2020, the Canadian government announced earlier this week that it would temporarily decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine, in the western province of British Columbia that has been ground zero for the country’s overdoses.
The exemption, announced by the country’s drug regulator Tuesday, comes four years after the country legalized the possession and consumption of recreational marijuana and puts Canada among a small group of countries worldwide that have taken steps to decriminalize illicit drugs.
The announcement was applauded by families of deceased opioid users and by peer support workers, and was supported by police associations and British Columbia’s chief coroner, but many harm reduction activists demanded that the government go further by expanding the exemption across the country and increasing the threshold to include larger quantities.
British Columbia declared drug-related deaths a public health emergency in 2016. Since the pandemic, rates of opioid use in the western province flared to alarming levels, with a record 2,224 deaths in 2021, compared to 1,767 in 2020, and one of the highest per-capita rates in North America.
“For too many years, the ideological opposition to harm reduction has cost lives,” Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of mental health and addictions, said at a news conference Tuesday.
“Today is a very important day and it is hard to believe that we actually got here,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, adding that when her report calling for the decriminalization of people who use drugs was published in 2018, “there was not a lot of support for it, at any level.”
British Columbia has been a leader in Canada’s harm reduction movement. It opened the first supervised injection site in North America in 2003 in Vancouver, over a decade after it launched the province’s first needle exchange program.
The police in Vancouver already tend to not charge drug users for personal possession in what’s known locally as a “Vancouver bubble,” said Mark Haden, an expert in drug policy and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. “The message is, we are starting to see this as a health problem, not a criminal justice problem,” he said.
The exemption will allow drug users to carry up to 2.5 grams total of four listed substances for personal use — opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA, also known as ecstasy or molly.
People over age 18 found carrying these drugs, at the prescribed amounts and for their personal use, will not be charged, arrested or have their drugs seized by the police. Instead, interactions with officers will be used as an opportunity to, if the person wishes, be referred to local health and social services.
The exemption will go into effect on Jan. 31, 2023, and will expire after three years. Even so, it will not apply in certain settings, including airports, schools, child care centers, aboard Coast Guard vessels or helicopters, or for military members.
Decriminalization will allow police to focus on organized crime and drug traffickers, instead of individual users, said Sheila Malcolmson, the provincial minister of mental health and addictions. “We will take this year ahead to ready our justice and health systems,” she added.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Guy Felicella, a peer clinical adviser at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use in Vancouver, who, starting at 16, spent decades in and out of jail for drug-related crimes. “Arresting me and incarcerating me for all those years for using drugs never stopped me once from using drugs — even when I went to prison. It didn’t do anything except create stigma and discrimination, shame.”
“It’s unfortunate that it’s just in British Columbia,” he added, “and that it’s not right across Canada.”
While calling the move “historic” and “progress,” Leslie McBain criticized the 2.5-gram threshold as “too small for people who are dependent.”
To follow the law, people addicted to opioids and other illicit drugs would have to return to their dealers more regularly, “increasing their chance of getting toxic drugs and being in that dangerous market,” said McBain, who co-founded the advocacy and support network Moms Stop The Harm in 2016, two years after her son Jordan died from a drug-induced heart attack.
“The organization that is supplying the drugs, that is an illegal crime organization,” said McBain. “Any time a person has to interact in that dangerous milieu, they are taking a chance.”
Not everyone in Canada celebrated the decision. Chuck Doucette, the president of the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, based in Delta, British Columbia, called the government’s announcement a “cop out.” He said people should be given help with the “issues that led them to use drugs in the first place” and “the help they need to get clean and sober.”
“I think making drug use easier for them is kind of like palliative care,” said Doucette, who spent 35 years working for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before retiring, most of which he spent in drug enforcement. “It’s just condemning them to a slow death because of drugs, whereas if you get them off drugs, get them a life back, they can enjoy life.”
The city of Vancouver had also previously applied for an exemption, which is still under review with Health Canada, in March 2021. If approved, the city’s exemption would apply to all amphetamines. Bennett, the federal minister, said British Columbia’s successful application could provide an example for other municipalities moving to decriminalize drugs for personal possession, including Toronto, which has formally applied. Montreal and Edmonton are considering it.
The approval of any additional applications will depend on the level of drug overdose in the area and other factors, such as whether decriminalization will divert people there from the criminal justice system and “augment” health services, said Bennett, the federal mental health and addictions minister.
British Columbia has one of the highest per-capita rates of drug death across North America, at 42.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, according to provincial data.
In the U.S., the 10 states with the highest level of drug overdose, have rates ranging between 39.1 deaths per 100,000 in Connecticut, to 81.4 deaths per 100,000 in West Virginia, according to the latest mortality data, for 2020, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.