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The First Year of Drug Decriminalization for BC

British Columbia has had an exemption from petty drug possession charges for a full year.  

The exemption made under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act removed criminal penalties for people found in possession of small amounts of particular drugs. The announcement was made by federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett. The exemption is intended to reduce the shame and fear associated with substance use and ultimately increase the rate at which individuals are offered assistance abandoning their addictions as opposed to being incarcerated.

In 2022, then mayor of Vancouver Kennedy Stewart said, “Decriminalizing possession of drugs is a historic, brave and groundbreaking step in the fight to save lives from the poisoned drug crisis. [This] marks a fundamental rethinking of drug policy that favours health care over handcuffs, and I could not be more proud of the leadership shown here by the governments of Canada and British Columbia.” 

From January 31, 2023, to January 31, 2026, adults in British Columbia will not be subject to criminal charges or the seizure of drugs they are found in possession of so long as they possess less than 2.5 grams total of any combination of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, or MDMA. Key to know is that the exemption does not equate to the legalization of the listed substances. Rather than arresting those in possession of less than the stated amount, police will instead offer information about available health and social support and will help with referrals. 

“Substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” said Sheila Malcomson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions in BC. “By decriminalizing people who use drugs, we will break down the stigma that stops people from accessing life-saving support and services.” 

From 2017 to 2022, the Government of Canada has committed more than $800 million to address the crisis of opioid overdoses, according to a statement posted to the BC government website. The decision to decriminalize petty possession is a new strategy to get citizens struggling with addiction access to adequate mental health care. 

Attitudes of Canadians About Drug Decriminalization 

Health Canada conducted a public opinion survey to determine Canadians’ attitudes toward decriminalization. Questions focused both on attitudes and knowledge about what they preferred for approaches addressing substance use (social services or police enforcement), how much empathy participants feel toward those struggling with substance use disorders, what their general level of comfort talking about their own substance use with family or friends is, and their perceived benefits and disadvantages of decriminalization. 

The survey also included four true-or-false questions to determine respondents’ knowledge of the exemption laws in BC pertaining to personal possession. Through the survey, Health Canada aimed to determine prevalent stigmas, typical attitudes toward drug use, and perceptions of public safety. 

Forty-nine per cent of those surveyed preferred an approach focused on creating access to health and social services rather than police enforcement. Seven per cent of respondents chose police enforcement as the preferred method of addressing substance use. In comparison, 35 per cent said both approaches are equally appropriate, and 6 per cent felt neither approach was appropriate for addressing the current drug crisis.

Fifty-one per cent of respondents stated they strongly or somewhat agree that decriminalizing drugs would increase harms associated with drug use, such as overdose, while 38 per cent disagreed. Forty-three per cent of respondents said they believe decriminalizing drugs would make their community less safe, to which 46 per cent disagreed, and 8 per cent of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed. 

As for how accurately respondents understand what is taking place in BC, the accuracy of policies implemented last year in BC was around 61 per cent overall across the four questions asked.  

A year in review

January 31 marked one year since decriminalization was implemented in BC. In 2023, Carolyn Bennett described the move to decriminalization as a “bold action.”

“Every day, we are losing lives to overdoses from the increasingly toxic illegal drug supply. We are committed to stopping this tragic epidemic with bold action and significant policy change,” Bennett said a day before unrolling the new policy. 

One year into the three-year project, toxic drug deaths have broken records in BC. Through 2023, the average was seven narcotic-related deaths per day. This uptick has created an uproar among citizens and MLAs alike, calling for the pilot project to be ended. Along with an increase in toxic drug-related deaths, there has also reportedly been an increase in drug use in public spaces, including public parks. 

Proponents of decriminalization have counterargued that decriminalization will only be successful if it is coupled with a major expansion to programs related to opioid assistance, aiding those addicted to finding treatment as well as opioid alternatives to reduce the effects of withdrawals, which, if left untreated, can cause death. 

In October, a law was passed in BC to ban drug use in most public spaces. If a person is caught consuming illegal substances in any of the included public places, police have the authority to seize drugs the individual has in their possession. The Harm Reduction Nurses Association has since challenged the new legislation, stating the new law will force people to consume their drugs in back alleys where they are at greater risk of fatal overdose. The challenge caused the law to be blocked by courts before going into effect. The BC government is currently appealing the ruling.

A similar story is being seen in Oregon, where, in 2021, a similar bill was passed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. Since decriminalization, the rate of toxic drug deaths has increased, as have complaints from the public about public consumption. While those in favour argue it is a long-term solution, taking as much as a decade to have provable positive results, those opposed to decriminalization argue the experiment has failed. These discussions continue in Oregon as they do in BC.

In the middle of these debates is Alberta, where no such decriminalization exists, and deaths related to toxic drug consumption have reached the highest the province has ever seen, with 1,700 such deaths seen in the first ten months of 2023. A majority of these deaths are related to opioids. If these figures show the same trend over the last two months of 2023, it will be the highest death count due to drug toxicity Alberta has ever seen. The previous annual record was 1,869 fatalities seen in 2021. By the 10-month mark, 2021 had seen approximately 1,500 such deaths.

In April 2023, nearly 200 Albertans died from drug toxicity, another tragic record set by the province. While decriminalization is being blamed by many in Oregon and BC for the increase in deaths, it is important to bear in mind the rate of death due to drug toxicity has increased drastically across Canada and the United States in the last ten years. In 2023, 84 per cent of opioid toxicity deaths in Canada involved fentanyl. In 2016, fentanyl was involved in 47 per cent of opioid-related deaths. These local rates are being blamed on new policies. Meanwhile, overdose deaths are a consistent issue in towns and cities on both sides of the border. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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