The Canadian federal government on Tuesday approved a vast experiment in the decriminalization of drugs in one of the country’s largest provinces, British Columbia. so that police will no longer be able to make arrests, issue citations or even seize four currently illegal substances in low-level possession cases.
This harm reduction policy will take effect on January 31, 2023 and will last until at least January 31, 2026 in British Columbia (BC), Canada’s fourth largest province by population.
The federal Minister of Mental Health and Addiction and the Associate Minister of Health have given the green light to this three-year exception to the country’s drug code, with the aim of destigmatizing substance abuse and encouraging the treatment as an alternative to criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs, in a concept of massive opioid overdoses in the province.
The Provincial Association of Police Commissioners and the Canadian Association of Commissioners support this policy, although the former only proposed to decriminalize one gram.
From 2023, people caught in possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illicit drugs – including opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA – will not be criminalized. British Columbia officials had proposed setting the possession threshold at 4.5 grams, but the governments reached a compromise.
“Substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal issue,” said Sheila Malcolmson, BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “By decriminalizing people who use drugs, we will break down the stigma that keeps people from accessing lifesaving support and services. »
The overdose epidemic in British Columbia has forced the conversation about what kind of strategies could prevent more deaths. Canadian health officials and lawmakers are increasingly willing to support policies such as improving access to needle-exchange programs and anti-overdose medication like naloxone.
“The decriminalization of drug possession is a historic, courageous and revolutionary step in the fight to save lives from the toxic drug crisis,” said Kennedy Stewart, Mayor of Vancouver. “Today marks a fundamental overhaul of drug policy that prioritizes care over handcuffs and I could not be more proud of the leadership shown here by the governments of Canada and British Columbia. »
Today is a momentous day.
The agreement between the Governments of Canada and BC to #decriminalize possession of drugs is an historic, brave, and groundbreaking step in the fight to save lives from the poison drug crisis.
—Kennedy Stewart (@kennedystewart) May 31, 2022
The City of Vancouver, in particular, has been at the forefront of promoting harm reduction policies, for example opening its first supervised consumption site in 2003 where people can use currently illegal drugs in a medically supervised environment.
Officials from other jurisdictions in Canada have also expressed interest in receiving a decriminalization exception from the federal government, but British Columbia is the first to be approved.