British Columbia to decriminalize possession of certain illegal drugs in 2023

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Small amounts of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA to be decriminalized

Recently, the government of British Columbia announced that a three-year exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act has been granted to the province.

This exemption will decriminalize the possession of small amounts of certain substances for personal use, including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, and will come into effect on January 31, 2023.

2022 marks six years since the province declared a state of emergency over the opioid crisis – a crisis that has reportedly caused more than 9,500 deaths since then. By decriminalizing drug possession, the BC government is trying to remove legal barriers that prevent people who use drugs from accessing vital resources like drug checking and other social services.

The Government of Canada has described the exemption as “an additional tool that the federal government is providing to British Columbia to help them address the harms of substance use and overdose.” As the first exemption of its kind in Canada, the results of this policy could prove a useful tool to inform future government action on the opioid crisis.

So, what are the specifics of the exemption?

First, it is important to note the difference between decriminalization and legalization. Unlike cannabis, which was federally legalized in 2018, the substances covered by this exemption are still illegal. However, adults 18 and older in British Columbia will not be subject to criminal penalties for possession of 2.5 grams or less of illegal substances once the exemption takes effect.

Until January 31, 2023, possession of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamines and MDMA is a criminal offense, even for personal use. After the exemption takes effect, instead of arresting and seizing the substances in question, police will provide information and voluntary referrals to health and social services resources to those found in possession of the substances.

Possession of substances not included in the exception, or in quantities greater than 2.5 grams, will remain illegal.

The 2.5 gram threshold is significantly lower than the 4.5 grams requested by the province in fall 2021.

Dr. Bruce Wallace, assistant professor in UVic’s School of Social Work and scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR), criticizes the 2.5 gram limit and says the reduction compared to the proposed 4.5 grams will significantly reduce the effectiveness of the policy.

“One of the reasons we think the very low threshold doesn’t make sense is based on some of our data, which shows that people often don’t just buy drugs for themselves,” says Wallace. , which also works with Substance UVic which runs the Vancouver Island Drug Control Project. “There are good harm reduction practices in people who buy drugs together, test them, and then can split or share them.”

Bruce Wallace outside Substance UVic. Photo provided.

Harm reduction strategies like the one described by Wallace would remain illegal under the provisions of the exemption, which will continue to prohibit the supply or distribution of illegal drugs. Wallace also believes that other policies, such as safe supply, are needed alongside decriminalization.

In April 2022, approximately 161 people died from overdoses in British Columbia. In 2021, the average was 186.3 deaths per month. Given those numbers, advocates such as Wallace are concerned about the delay — January 2023 is still six months away.

“With an overdose crisis in which so many people are dying every day, the delay in implementation is really frustrating, especially after the time we’ve waited for this to move forward,” he said.

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