The province of British Columbia has received the first ever exemption from Health Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, ensuring adults are not subject to criminal charges for the possession of certain illegal drugs for personal use for three years, starting January 31, 2023.
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, a move which the province hopes will directly address and reduce the stigma around addiction.
“By decriminalizing people who use drugs, we will break down the stigma that stops people from accessing life-saving support and services,” said Sheila Malcolmson, provincial Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Substance use is a public health issue, not a criminal one.”
By decriminalizing the possession of these drugs, they remain illegal to sell and obtain, but allows the healthcare system to support those struggling with addiction, rather than the justice system.
After the effective date of January 31, 2023, those found with illicit substances for personal use will no longer have their drugs seized, or be arrested or charged. Instead, police will offer information on available addictions, healths, and social supports.
“This exemption is a vital step to keeping people alive and help connect them with the health and social support they need,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s provincial health officer.
“By removing the fear and shame of drug use, we will be able to remove barriers that prevent people from accessing harm reduction services and treatment programs.”
The ongoing toxic drug overdose crisis in BC has seen increased overdose deaths in areas all across the province, with Merritt having one of the highest rates for the year 2021. In addressing this crisis, the province and other agencies have increased access to safe consumption sites, harm-reduction programs, and safe-supply programs.
While these have been somewhat effective in preventing overdose deaths, the federal government recognized the need for stronger action and bold strokes when granting BC’s request for exemption.
“The shocking number of lives lost to the overdose crisis requires bold actions and significant policy change. I have thoroughly reviewed and carefully considered both the public health and public safety impacts of this request,” said Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.
“Eliminating criminal penalties for those carrying small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will reduce stigma and harm and provide another tool for British Columbia to end the overdose crisis.”
For more information on the exemption and which drugs fall under it, visit canada.ca/en/health-canada/.