British Columbia tomorrow will become a testing ground for the decriminalization of illicit narcotics and opioids as the country grapples with extensive fatal toxic drug poisonings.
Beginning Jan. 31, police won’t arrest, charge or seize the drugs of adults in possession of up to 2.5 grams of heroin, cocaine, crack, crystal meth, MDMA or fentanyl.
The move comes after years of calls by advocates and experts – including chief coroner Lisa Lapointe – to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in efforts to reduce stigma and those using alone.
B.C. leaders had asked and received the exemption from the federal government in May 2022.
In the province alone, some 10,000 people have died from toxic drugs since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016.
The federal exemption will last three years.
Federal Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said during a news conference Monday morning that toxic drug deaths have claimed the lives 30,000 Canadians in recent years and this pilot of decriminalization marks a “monumental shift” toward a comprehensive approach to reduce harm.
This possession of illicit drugs will remain illegal on school grounds, on licensed childcare premises and in motors vehicles or watercrafts and at airports.
B.C.’s Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said decriminalization marks a “historical change” that will benefit individuals struggling with substance use.
“Instead of being treated as criminals, they will be treated with care and compassion,” she said, adding that this is a matter of public health, not criminal justice.
The exemption is only applicable to adults 18 years and older.
“We want parents to know that we are always discouraging youths from using drugs,” Whiteside said.
Benchmarks for success still being determined
As B.C. pilots the monumental shift in the legalities of drug use, other provinces will surely be watching. How exactly the trial will be considered a success in reducing deaths has yet to be seen.
Whiteside said this major step is still only one tool to minimize the record-breaking deaths each month and need to be paired with resources that help individuals recover and receive treatment.
Bennett said work is underway to create a public dashboard that reviews trends every three months, but Whiteside later clarified that it won’t available by March, and that metrics are still being developed.
B.C.’s public health officer Bonnie Henry, a long-time advocate for these changes, said criminalizing people using drugs causes harm and does not reduce drug use. Henry said the stigma and shame around drug use prevents many people from seeking help and drives into isolation.
“This means many people are dying alone,” she said.
“…it is a philosophical and important step that helps us take that next (step) together to make sure we are doing everything we can and that there are many different streams, people can follow,” said Henry.
BC Association of Chiefs of Police vice-president Fiona Wilson said Tuesday will marks a significant step toward a more progressive drug policy and that “de-facto decriminalization” has already happened across many cities in B.C.
“Certainly, in the City of Vancouver, it is extremely rare for us to actually charge anyone for simple possession and that has been the case for many, many years.”
Police will instead provide information on health and social supports, as well as local treatment and recovery options, so they can get the support they need.
Police will use photos and infographics but not scales to measure whether somebody has exceeded the limit, according to officials.
Officials revealed two-thirds of the 9,000 front-line officers in B.C. have completed at least one phase of the two-phased training. RCMP have made the training mandatory for their detachments in the province.