B.C. decriminalizes drug possession for personal use: Here’s what you need to know

B.C. decriminalizes drug possession for personal use: Here's what you need to know
People hold up signs calling for the decriminalization of drugs in Victoria in 2020.

British Columbia will become the first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize drug possession for personal use starting Jan. 31 and the government revealed exactly what the experiment will look like in a news conference Monday.

The three-year pilot program, which was approved by Health Canada, will allow adults over the age of 18 to possess up to 2.5 grams of drugs, including heroin, fentanyl and cocaine, without fear of arrest or prosecution. The goal is to reduce drug-related deaths and encourage users to seek help for addiction.

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside was joined by her federal counterpart Carolyn Bennett, along with Dr. Bonnie Henry, to provide more specifics about the plan, which includes hiring staff in health authorities to connect those possessing quantities of substances under the limit with services in their community.

The province also confirmed the protocol for when officers interact with individuals possessing drugs, saying officers will hand out resource cards to users, providing information on how to access social and health services if they choose to.

The strategy marks a significant shift in the way B.C. is addressing its toxic drug crisis as deaths continue to rise in the province. Data released at the start of the month by the BC Coroners Service shows that over 14,000 people have died from toxic drug overdoses since 2016, with 87 per cent of deaths involving illicit fentanyl.

Proponents say decriminalization is a way to reduce the stigma associated with drug use and increase access to health services for people struggling with addiction.

READ MORE: B.C. poised for drug decriminalization experiment, but will it help stem deadly tide?

While B.C. had proposed a personal limit of 4.5 grams for illicit drugs, Health Canada settled on 2.5 grams. Some advocate groups like Moms Stop the Harm and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition say that isn’t enough and leaves many drug users outside the scope of the pilot program, especially those who live in rural and remote communities where they often buy larger quantities of substances.

The B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, which initially proposed a one-gram limit, has expressed support for decriminalization, though it has voiced concerns about drug dealers or organized crime taking advantage of the new policy.

The exemption only applies within the province of British Columbia and is not a form of legalization. The province added that decriminalization is just one tool in the fight against the toxic drug crisis and it has worked with police agencies to develop training and guidance that is available to about 9,000 officers.

Sale of the drugs will still be illegal and drug trafficking will remain a criminal offense.

The province has said the exemption will not apply to anyone under 18, or in locations including elementary and secondary schools, licensed child-care facilities, airports and Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters. However, the plan has also been criticized for not including youth.

Local governments will still have the authority to pass bylaws restricting public substance use. The exemption does not change Canada’s border rules or laws in other provinces and taking any amount of illegal drugs across domestic or international borders will remain illegal, as will impaired driving.

Victoria’s police chief said Monday afternoon that decriminalization will take a major mindset shift for officers who are still undergoing training but that the department is committed to seeing the experiment succeed.

“It is a significant policy shift, in fact it’s one of the biggest policy shifts we’ve seen in this country and we’re doing everything we can to make sure our officers are ready on the front lines with the right level of training,” said Chief Del Manak.

For those who use drugs the change should have an immediate impact.

“It’s going to be good I think for people with mental health issues, the paranoia is going to be less for people on the streets that are using,” said Dave Keeler, a street ambassador with SOLID Outreach.

But Keeler says many of those who use substances are skeptical about the success of decriminalization because the amount allowed is lower than what many people typically carry. He says 3.5 grams would be more reasonable.

Keeler also thinks a legal safe supply, more drug checking services and 24 hour safe consumption sites would have a greater impact as far as saving lives from the toxic drug crisis. But for now, he says, it’s a step in the right direction.

The province and the federal government have both said they will closely monitor the program to ensure its success, though media present at Monday’s news conference questioned exactly how much and how often information will be shared.

Both levels of government said they will monitor indicators related to health and criminal justice. Trends in substance use, interactions with police and public perceptions of people who use drugs are also expected to be included in the data, as well as input from drug users. The evaluation will be done by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

-With files from The Canadian Press

Watch the full news conference below:

Jeff LawrenceJeff Lawrence

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