In a historic decision, the BC government has applied to Health Canada to decriminalize drug possession for individuals possessing small amounts of illegal substances.
BC is the first province to seek an exemption from Health Canada for decriminalizing personal drug use under Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
If approved by the federal government, people aged 19+ won’t be arrested, charged, fined or forced into treatment if they are in personal possession of a cumulative 4.5 grams of opioids, cocaine and/or methamphetamines.
The government said it is looking towards decriminalizing it for people aged 12 and over as well.
“Substance use and addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” said Minister of Mental Health & Addictions, Sheila Malcolmson.
“BC is adding new health and substance-use care services almost weekly, but we know shame prevents many people from accessing life-saving care. That’s why it’s crucial to decriminalize people who use drugs.”
Dr. Bonnie Henry iterated that this application for decriminalization will address people in the cycle of drug use, and addresses the impetus for users to hide their drug use and will encourage difficult conversations surrounding drug-use.
At the press conference, Mike Knott, a current overdose prevention outreach worker and person with lived experience, made a statement regarding the decision.
“I hid my drug use from shame, from criminalization, from stigma, I count myself very lucky to be alive. There’s no one answer from slowing the tide of these horrible deaths,” said Knott.
“But this is a great start. This is a little crack of light during these very dark times. We have a lot of work to do, but this is a good beginning.”
The province declared a public health emergency in 2016, and since then, 7,700 British Columbians have died because of a toxic drug supply.
This year, over 1,200 BC residents have died due to a toxic drug supply.
July 2021 marked the second-deadliest month on record in BC—only two fewer than the 186 deaths recorded in June 2020—and is the 17th consecutive month that more than 100 British Columbians have died due to toxic drugs.
Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria are experiencing the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2021.
While decriminalization intends to destigmatize opioid-drug-use, the matter of the poisoned drug supply is still an issue that has yet to be addressed or solved by the BC government.
Fentanyl and Carfentanil—a more potent analogue of fentanyl—has been commonly detected in toxic drug supply deaths.
Portugal, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are just some of the countries that have decriminalized drug use and possession for personal use in the past.
Since Portugal decriminalized drugs and implemented a health-centered perspective on drug-use in 2001, HIV and drug-related deaths have decreased.