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WATCH: B.C. set to become first province to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs

Feds give B.C. exemption for three years starting in January

  • 2.5 grams is the limit for possession for personal use.
  • Police will not confiscate drugs
  • Those in possession will be offered health info referred to services
  • Move aimed at tackling massive fatalities due to overdose

The federal and provincial governments have announced possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use in British Columbia will no longer carry criminal penalty from next year.

It’s the latest move among an array of measures already being initiated in this province to try to reduce the massive loss of life due to toxic illicit substances.

Up to 35 people a week are dying in B.C. due to the toxic drug crisis, according to the coroner.

Health officials said the legal change will remove shame and stigma among users and will ultimately save lives as many who die from toxic overdose do so alone while hiding their addiction.

Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Carolyn Bennett, has granted B.C. a three-year exemption to decriminalize possession of 2.5 grams or less of certain substances.

People will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized. Instead, police will offer information on available health and social supports and will help with referrals when requested.

The new laws will be in effect from Jan. 31, 2023, to Jan. 31, 2026, throughout British Columbia and will be constantly monitored and adapted if necessary.

Template for Canada

“This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada, and with it comes great responsibility for the health, safety and wellbeing for the people of British Columbia,” Bennett told a news briefing in Vancouver Tuesday. She said it would be a template for other jurisdictions across Canada.

Provincial mental health and additions minister, Sheila Malcolmson, said shame and fear keep people from accessing the help they need.

“The fear of being criminalized had led many people to hide their addiction and use drugs alone. Using alone can mean dying alone,” she said, noting between five and seven people a day are dying from a toxic drug overdose.

“Half of these deaths are happening inside a private residence, often when people are alone,” she said, quoting the ‘heartbreaking experience’ of first responders in Nanaimo being called after family members discovered a loved one dead in a rec room of their home, having no idea they were struggling with addiction.

Shame is 'powerful emotion'

B.C’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has been at the forefront of calls for decriminalization, said the changes would be a major part of dealing with the crisis.

“We know that shame is a very powerful emotion, and it keeps people hiding those things that they don’t want others to know, for fear of being labelled a criminal,” Henry said. “It also means they don’t reach out to health professionals for support.”

Henry made it clear the move to decriminalization was just one extra element to combat the fatal, and so far, insurmountable problem. The province has already moved to improve access to a safe drug supply; has promised a 30, 60, and 90 day action plan involving public health; and is committed to an evidence-based continuum of care to support substance users.

Malcolmson explained how policing of the new laws would work once they come into effect in late January.

“[Police] will not confiscate their drugs because that makes vulnerable people more vulnerable, but they will give them support in navigating at a local level, the healthcare system and the supports that are available to them; treatment, recovery, safe use, drug testing , there’s a range.”

Published 2022-05-31 by Glenn Hicks

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