Canada temporarily decriminalizes certain drugs in British Columbia

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — The Government of Canada said Tuesday it would allow British Columbia to attempt a three-year experiment to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs, seeking to stem a record number of deaths by overdose by alleviating the fear of arrest by users in need of help.

The policy approved by federal officials does not legalize the substances, but Canadians in the Pacific Coast province who possess up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs for personal use will not be arrested or charged.

The three-year exemption taking effect on January 31 will apply to drug users aged 18 and over and will include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.

“Stigma and fear of criminalization lead some people to hide their drug use, to use alone, or to use in other ways that increase the risk of harm. This is why the Government of Canada treats substance use as a health issue, not a criminal issue,” tweeted Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada.

The province’s health officer, Dr Bonnie Henry, said “we are taking an important step forward in eliminating this fear, this shame and this stigma”.

“It’s not one thing that will reverse this crisis, but it will make a difference,” she added.

Dana Larsen, a drug policy reform campaigner, called the announcement “a step in the right direction”, but said he would prefer to see the development of a safe drug supply.

“It won’t prevent anyone from dying from drug overdose or poisoning,” Larsen said. “The drugs are still going to be contaminated.”

“I think we need stores where you can walk in and find legal heroin, legal cocaine and legal ecstasy and things like that for adults,” he said. “The real solution to this problem is to treat it like alcohol and tobacco.”

Alissa Greer, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and a PhD in public health, said regulated decriminalization of drugs could help reduce overdose deaths.

She said it would be good if users could get drugs from “regulated supply through various models, whether it’s a prescription model, a pharmacy model, more a compassion club model…rather than going down to 7-Eleven and buying heroin.

British Columbia is the first Canadian province to request an exemption from Canada’s drug laws.

In 2001, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalize the use of all drugs. People caught with less than 10 days of drug supply are usually referred to a local commission, made up of a doctor, lawyer and social worker, where they inquire about treatment and available medical services. .

In 2020, Oregon voted to become the first US state to decriminalize hard drugs. Under the change, possession of controlled substances is a new Class E “violation,” instead of a felony or misdemeanor. It is subject to a maximum fine of $100, which can be waived if the person calls a hotline for a health assessment. The call can lead to addiction counseling and other services.

Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said the experience in British Columbia could serve as a model for other jurisdictions in Canada.

“This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada,” she said. “Real-time adjustments will be made upon receipt of analysis of all data indicating a need for change.”

Since 2016, there have been more than 9,400 deaths from toxic illicit drugs in British Columbia, with a one-year high of 2,224 in 2021.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he receives emails every Monday about drug-related deaths, including nine in the past week and 12 the week before. He said one week it was a member of his own family.

“I felt like crying, and I still feel like crying. It’s a big, big thing,” Stewart said.

The 2.5 gram limit set by federal authorities for the experiment is lower than the 4.5 grams requested by British Columbia. The higher amount had already been called too low a threshold by some drug user groups who said the province had not consulted them enough.

Sheila Malcolmson, British Columbia’s minister of mental health, said the fear of being criminalized has led many people to hide their addiction and use drugs alone.

“To use alone can mean to die alone, especially in this climate of tragically increased toxicity of illicit drugs,” Malcolmson said.

She said the British Columbia coroner reports that between five and seven people die every day in the province from drug overdoses and that half of those happen in a private home, often when people are alone.

“Fear and shame keep drug use a secret,” she said.

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Gillies reported from Toronto.

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