British Columbia allowed to decriminalize possession of illegal drugs for personal use. How long until the rest of Canada follows suit?

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The Canadian government said this week that it will let British Columbia decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use in an effort to stem the tide of a record number of overdose deaths in the province.  

BC declared a public health emergency related to opioid use in 2016, and since then over 9,400 people have died because of drug poisonings – more than 80% of whom were using alone.

So beginning in January 2023 and for the next 3 years, people 18 and over will be able to posess up to a combined 2.5 grams of opioids like heroin & fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA (ecstasy) without arrest, charge, or seizure of the drugs, by police.  

The rationale is public health. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act allows the government to lift enforcement of the Act if it is “necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.” 

Decriminalization is in the public interest because it will reduce the stigma & shame associated with usage thus allowing  people to be more open about their behavior and therefore more likely to seek support from friends, family, and treatment agencies. And not having a criminal record will go a long way towards their ability to get meaningful work.

This paradigm shift of seeing drug use as a public health issue and not a criminal issue was echoed by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tham, in a tweet this week:

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 Gov of CA treats substance use as a health issue, not a criminal one.

The reframing of drug use has widespread support in Canada; for example, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police issued a report two years ago in which they:

recognize substance use disorder as a public health issue. …

agree that evidence suggests, and numerous Canadian health leaders support, decriminalization for simple possession as an effective way to reduce the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use.

The 3-year trial period of decriminalization will be used to assess the merits of this new strategy but we’re already seeing where this is heading: other jurisdictions want on board. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, and Edmonton, the capitol of Alberta, have both asked the Canadian government for decriminalization.

And yesterday in parliament the leader of the opposition called on the Trudeau government to make decriminalization a national policy. In response, Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, left the door open saying the government will watch how decriminalization unfolds in BC to see if it achieves its intended goals for “both public safety and public health.”

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