VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Canada’s government announced Tuesday it will allow the province of British Columbia to try a three-year experiment in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs, hoping it will help stem a record number of overdose deaths by easing a fear of arrest by those who need help.
The policy approved by federal officials doesn’t legalize the substances, but Canadians in the Pacific coast province who possess up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs for personal use will not be arrested or charged.
The three-year exemption effective Jan. 31 will apply to drug users 18 and over and include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.
“Stigma and fear of criminalization cause some people to hide their drug use, use alone, or use in other ways that increase the risk of harm. This is why the Government of Canada treats substance use as a health issue, not a criminal one,” tweeted Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.
The province’s health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said that with the policy, “we are taking an important step forward to removing that fear and shame and stigma.”
“This is not one single thing that will reverse this crisis but it will make a difference,” she added.
British Columbia is the first Canadian province to apply for an exemption from Canada’s drug laws
Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of mental health and addictions, said it could serve as a template for other jurisdictions across Canada.
“This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada,” she said. “Real-time adjustments will be made upon receiving analysis of any data that indicates a need to change.”
Bennett said they are doing it to save lives. “For too many years the ideological opposition to harm reduction has cost lives,” she said.
Since 2016 there have been over 9,400 deaths due to toxic illicit drugs in the province and a record 2,224 last year.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he gets emails every Monday on drug deaths, including nine last week and 12 the week before. He said one week it was his own family member.
“I felt like crying, and I still feel like crying. This is a big, big thing,” Stewart said.
He said the exemption from Canada’s drug laws is just the start.
The allowable amount of illegal substances falls short of the 4.5 grams requested by British Columbia, and was already deemed too low a threshold by some drug-user groups that have criticized the province for failing to adequately consult them.
Sheila Malcolmson, British Columbia’s minister of mental health, said the fear of being criminalized has led many people to hide their addiction and use drugs alone.
“Using alone can mean dying alone, particularly in this climate of tragically increased illicit drug toxicity,” Malcolmson said.
Malcolmson said the coroner in British Columbia reports that between five and seven people die a day in the province from overdoses and that half of those happen in a private home, often when people are alone. “Fear and shame keeps drug use a secret,” she said.
Oregon voters approved a ballot measure in 2020 to decriminalize hard drugs after being told it was a way to establish and fund addiction recovery centers that would offer people aid instead of incarceration. Yet in the first year after the new approach took effect in February 2021, only 1% of people who received citations for possessing controlled substances asked for help via a new hotline.
With Oregon being the first state in America to decriminalize possession of personal-use amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other drugs, its program is being watched as a potential model for other states. Under Ballot Measure 110, possession of controlled substances is now a newly created Class E “violation,” instead of a felony or misdemeanor. It carries a maximum $100 fine, which can be waived if the person calls a hotline for a health assessment. The call can lead to addiction counseling and other services.