British Columbia will become the first province in Canada to decriminalize possession of certain illicit drugs for personal use, after receiving federal approval Tuesday.
Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and additions, announced that the Trudeau government has granted British Columbia a three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) to decriminalize personal possession and use of some illicit drugs beginning in early 2023.
Starting Jan. 31, anyone 18 and above in B.C. who possess up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs strictly for personal use will not be arrested or charged. Drugs that fall under the exemption include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy. The three-year exemption will end on Jan. 31, 2026.
“This is not legalization. We have not taken this decision lightly,” said Bennett during Tuesday’s press conference, later adding. “This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada and with it comes great responsibility.”
In November 2021, B.C. submitted an application to the federal government that sought such an exemption as part of its effort to deal with the ongoing overdose crisis, which has killed thousands since a provincial emergency was declared in 2016. The province had argued that criminalizing drug use increases stigma and deters users from seeking treatment or services that could prevent overdoses.
Though B.C.’s application requested the allowable limit to be 4.5 grams, Sheila Malcolmson, the province’s minister of mental health and additions, called the federal government’s decision a “major step” forward to changing how the public views addiction and drug use.
“It reflects our government’s agreement that substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” she added.
But some advocates say the lower allowable amount will still leave some regular users at risk.
“They’re going to have to keep accessing their illicit substances on the street or through their network of people that they know and each time they do that it’s such a toxic supply and such a volatile supply,” said Michael Knott with Victoria’s SOLID Outreach.
As a result of the announcement, B.C. will not only be the first in Canada but the first jurisdiction in North America to decriminalize possession of small amounts of harder drugs like opioids and methamphetamine. Oregon decriminalized possession in 2020, but unlike in B.C., drugs could still be seized and users could be fined US$100.
In a statement to the media, Victoria’s police chief, Del Manak said the department welcomes the federal government’s announcement.
For years, VicPD has taken the view that addiction and substance use is a health care issue, not a criminal justice issue,” he said. “VicPD welcomes this announcement and supports the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use to reduce stigmatization, direct individuals to a pathway of health, and avoid the criminalization of persons who use drugs.”
With files from the Canadian Press