The decriminalization of some illicit substances under B.C’s first in the nation exemption from Health Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act will take effect on January 31, 2023 for a three year period, a move the provincial government hopes will both address and reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health issues. 

The exemption will apply 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. 

The Merritt RCMP currently respond to calls of public drug use on an almost daily basis, but users rarely see charges for possession alone, Acting Detachment Commander Sgt. Josh Roda tells the Herald. 

“With these complaints, we try to move users along and encourage them to seek help,” said Roda.

“We do not and have not charged users with possession unless there are aggravating factors, such as committing other offences, like drug dealing, break and enter, or assault, to name a few.”

Roda noted that the Merritt RCMP hands out naloxone kits to drug users who pass through their cell block, and encourages them to seek help by offering relevant material on supports available through Interior Health Authority. Roda agreed with the province’s statement that addiction and substance use are healthcare issues, and said the issue should be tackled by healthcare authorities. He explained that the RCMP will continue to target drug dealers and crimes associated with them beyond the effective date of the exemption.

By decriminalizing the possession of these drugs, they remain illegal to sell and obtain, but the province said the change allows the healthcare system to support those struggling with addiction, rather than the justice system. The possession of these substances will be allowed in most public areas, with some restrictions around schools, airports, and childcare facilities. Roda added that the Merritt RCMP will no longer respond to calls of public drug use in most circumstances.

“The jury is still out on how this will affect policing,” explained Roda.

“There are restrictions on where people can use, but ultimately they will be allowed to use in most public areas. If people are using in a legal area, we will not respond to calls about drug use.”

Roda added that while he agrees addiction and substance use are healthcare issues, he noted that drug dealing is not, and those victimizing vulnerable populations by profiting from addictions through the selling of drugs should be held accountable.