Decriminalization of the use and possession of a number of hard drugs has come into effect across B.C, with a number of social supports taking the place of police action on drug use and possession cases.

As of January 31, 2023, the possession of some illicit drugs has been decriminalized by a first-in-the-nation three year trial exemption from Health Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The province hopes the move to decriminalize the use and possession of these drugs, highlighting the fact that the sale and trafficking of the drugs remains illegal, will allow the healthcare system to focus on addiction and substance use, while police focus on criminal matters. 

“We know criminalization drives people to use alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply, using alone can be fatal,” said Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. 

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving support. This is a vital step to get more people connected to the services and supports as the Province continues to add them at an unprecedented rate.”

The exemption applies to British Columbians 18 years of age and older, allowing them to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of cocaine, opioids, methamphetamine and MDMA within the province without criminal charge, a move which the province hopes will directly address and reduce the stigma around addiction.

Since the exemption began, those found with illicit substances for personal use no longer have their drugs seized, or are arrested or charged. Instead, police offer information on available addictions, healths, and social supports. The province said it has worked with police leaders to develop training resources and provide practical guidance to more than 9,000 front line officers in preparation for the province-wide decriminalization. 

Merritt Mayor Mike Goetz has been openly critical of the move to decriminalize, suggesting it wouldn’t make the province’s overdose epidemic any better. He has said the City will explore banning the public use of drugs within City limits. First Nations health leaders say the exemption will help mitigate some of the systemic racism First Nations people face in the healthcare and judicial systems. 

“The data clearly show that First Nations people continue to be disproportionately impacted by the ongoing toxic drug crisis in British Columbia,” said Dr. Nel Wieman, acting chief medical officer with the First Nations Health Authority.

“This is because First Nations people experience stereotyping, racism and discrimination in many different ways, including the health-care and judicial systems. Decriminalization will help to mitigate the stigma and shame attached to substance use and reduce the negative impacts of criminal charges, which is especially important to First Nations people who are over-represented in the criminal justice system.” 

A number of social services in the Nicola Valley offer drug testing and identification, a service the province hopes users will utilize as a part of harm reduction efforts. The Nicola Valley Shelter and Support Society’s Merritt Shelter on Voght Street offers take-home fentanyl test strips, as well as on site test strips. Ask Wellness’s downtown office on Quilchena Avenue uses Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to test drugs for their contents. Testing is available on site on select days, but samples can be dropped off to be mailed for testing. 

The exemption will now remain in effect until January 31, 2026, with the provincial and federal governments saying they will monitor the exemption to “ensure the desired outcomes of decriminalization are met and there are no unintended consequences.”