Health Canada has approved B.C.’s request to decriminalize small possessions of illicit drugs, although at a lower threshold than the province sought.
Beginning on Jan. 31, 2023, British Columbians 18 and older will be allowed to carry up to 2.5 grams of street drugs on them, which can include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA. Health Canada says the drugs must be for personal use only, and the program will be reviewed in three years.
The agency says adults found in possession of 2.5 grams or less won’t be arrested or charged and won’t have their drugs seized. Anyone producing or importing or exporting drugs and anyone carrying them for the purposes of trafficking will continue to face legal repercussions, though.
People carrying drugs cannot have them on the premises of an elementary or secondary school, licensed child care facility, airport or Canadian Coast Guard vessels or helicopters. Drugs also cannot be readily accessible to the driver or operator of a vehicle or boat, and cannot be carried across borders.
Health Canada says the months leading up to Jan. 31 will be used by B.C. to train law enforcement and health authorities, educate the public on the change, and work with First Nations and Indigenous leaders to ensure safe implementation.
Health Canada and a third party evaluator will be regularly monitoring the exemption throughout the three years and making any adjustments necessary.
The approval comes shortly after the six year anniversary of B.C. declaring a public health emergency around the opioid crisis. Since April 2016, close to 10,000 people have died to toxic drug overdoses, 548 of them in the first three months of 2022.
Advocates have long pushed for decriminalization as one avenue for reducing death tolls, including support from health care leaders and chiefs of police across the country.
They argue criminalizing drug possession doesn’t stop people from using them, but rather drives them to use alone and turn to more dangerous methods of accessing them. Criminalizing drugs also increases stigma against people who use them and worsens their relationship with law enforcement, advocates say.
In B.C.’s request to Health Canada, it asked for a 4.5-gram carry threshold, which some advocates said was still unrealistically low. When they heard Health Canada was considering a 2.5-gram threshold instead back in April, several said the amount was laughable for many users.
“That’s something I would eat for breakfast,” people told Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) member Brittany Graham at the time.
Garth Mullins, who represented VANDU during talks for the exemption, said Tuesday he’s happy to see some movement on a decades-long battle but agreed 2.5 grams is inadequate.
“It leaves the majority of us behind,” he said.
In deciding on the lower threshold, Health Canada says it weighed potential benefits against potential harms to the public. They say little data exists on what a good threshold amount is.
Speaking Tuesday, federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said based on the information they gather in B.C. they will consider expanding the decriminalization measure to the rest of Canada as well. She said she won’t be supporting Bill C-216, which aims to do just that and is set to be voted on by Parliament on Wednesday (June 1).
Decriminalization requests by Vancouver and Toronto are still pending, and Health Canada declined to provide any kind of decision timeline.