The Canadian government is decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and other narcotics in the Pacific coast province of British Columbia, the latest step in a battle against deadly drug overdoses.
The exemption will last three years and start Jan. 31 2023. It will decriminalize the personal possession of up to 2.5 grams of cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, MDMA and methamphetamine. These so called “hard drugs” have been at the center of a massive increase in overdose deaths in recent years.
The move only covers British Columbia, people above the age of 18 and does not allow for any possession at schools, airports, childcare facilities, ships or helicopters of the Canadian Coast Guard, or for members of Canada’s military.
Since 2016, an estimated 27,000 people have died in Canada from drug use, 10,000 in British Columbia. Just last year, 2,236 people fatally overdosed in British Columbia. The goal of the move is to reduce the stigma of drug addiction and push more people toward recovery.
Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of mental health and addictions, said while decriminalization is limited to one province, it could set an example for similar actions in other parts of Canada.
“This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada,” Bennett said. “And with it comes great responsibility for the health, safety and well-being of the people in British Columbia and template for other jurisdictions across Canada.”
Decriminalization means a person will not be arrested or charged for possession, not that the drugs become legal. When a drug is legalized, like personal possession of marijuana was in Canada in October 2018, the drug becomes regulated like alcohol and available in licensed stores, many run by provincial governments.
Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis, said researching his book gave him a change of heart on the issue of drug criminalization. Perrin had served as a legal adviser to Stephen Harper, the last Conservative Party prime minister of Canada, and was opposed to any form of legalization or decriminalization. But, he said, he now favors Canada’s move.
“We know that criminalizing people who use drugs is deadly,” Perrin said. “It contributes to opioid-related overdose deaths, it causes people to use alone, to use their drugs more quickly. It creates barriers to getting into recovery and treatment. And so the research is really clear.”
By contrast, Toronto Sun newspaper columnist Brian Lilley opposes decriminalization if it is not accompanied by a renewed focus on helping people recover from drug addiction.
“If this is the road that we're going to go down as a society, then I think we need to get serious about offering treatment for addictions,” he said. “Because otherwise, we're just simply aiding and abetting in prolonging the suffering that we shouldn't wish on our worst enemy.”
Bennett, who worked for years as a family physician prior to her political career, also announced nearly $9.5 million dollars ($11.78 million Canadian) in new funding toward substance abuse and addiction programs in British Columbia.
The exemption will last until 2026 and can be extended, both in time and potentially to the rest of Canada.