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B.C. decriminalizes possession of ‘small amounts’ of hard drugs for 3 years

The exemption, which includes opioids and cocaine, is the first of its kind in Canada and applies only to British Columbia.

Adults in B.C. in possession of a small amount of illicit drugs including opioids and cocaine will not be arrested or charged, nor will their drugs be seized, in a three-year trial set to begin in January.

The exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, announced Tuesday, allows those age 18 and older in B.C. to possess a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids including fentanyl and heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also called Ecstasy, for personal use. The exemption is set to expire Jan. 31, 2026, unless it is revoked or replaced before then.

“This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada and it comes with great responsibility for the health, safety and well being of the people of British Columbia,” Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions, said Tuesday.

It will also serve as a template for other jurisdictions across Canada, she said.

British Columbia asked Health Canada last year to decriminalize personal possession of 4.5 grams of drugs in the province to reduce stigma that prevents people from seeking help.

Since then, officials with the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and Health Canada have been working toward a province-wide exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which governs simple drug possession.

The exemption will undergo “robust and vigorous” monitoring and be independently reviewed over the trial period to gauge its impact on drug users, police, municipalities and the health system and also probe for unintended consequences, officials said.

The province expects the exemption will make drug users less likely to hide their consumption and more apt to seek health care or to access services that ensure drugs aren’t contaminated. Another goal is to allow police to better focus on cracking down on drug traffickers and organized crime.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said Monday that by decriminalizing possession of a small amount of illicit drugs, “we’re breaking down barriers that prevent people from accessing life-saving health-care services.”

Malcolmson said a comprehensive approach is needed to end the drug-poisoning crisis. Opioid overdoses have killed 26,690 people in Canada and 9,364 in B.C. between 2016, when the province declared overdose deaths a public-health emergency, and March 2022.

The B.C. First Nations Justice Council called decriminalization “an important step in the right direction” to ending the toxic-drug crisis. “Unfortunately, too many of our people have become entangled in the criminal justice system because of addictions,” said council chair Doug White.

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak supports the exemption, saying his department has for years viewed addiction and substance use as a health-care issue, not a criminal-justice issue. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has also endorsed decriminalization.

“Ending the overdose epidemic requires an integrated approach, which includes continued public funding for better access to treatment, public education and awareness campaigns, and legislative changes,” Manak said in a statement.

Unauthorized use of drugs by people age 12 to 17 will remain illegal and minors will be subject to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Possession of controlled substances in any amount for the purpose of trafficking, production or export will also remain illegal, as will carrying them across provincial or international borders.

“Minister Malcolmson and I want to be very clear, this is not legalization,” said Bennett. “We have not made this decision lightly.”

Victoria police said they will continue enforcement efforts against those who import, produce and distribute illicit drugs, “especially fentanyl.” Decriminalizing drugs alone will not solve the overdose epidemic that continues to claim too many lives across the province, said Manak.

The exemption does not apply to adults on the grounds of elementary or secondary schools, licensed child-care facilities, airports, Canadian Coast Guard vessels or helicopters, or to members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

It also does not apply to personal motor vehicles or watercraft — in use or not — operated by a minor. As well, the drugs cannot be readily accessible to the driver or operator of a vehicle or watercraft or on public transit.

The federal government says more than $800 million has been committed to addressing the overdose crisis — $433 million since 2017 to address substance-use and mental-health issues in the province.

The exemption is one of a number of efforts to reduce toxic-drug deaths in B.C., including supervised drug-consumption and inhalation sites, distribution of naloxone kits to reverse the effects of an overdose, and a commitment to increase the number of detox and treatment beds.

B.C. also wants to be able to supply people who use drugs with a safe supply to reduce the number of toxic drug poisonings.

Health Canada says various tools are available to address concerns during the trial period, including revocation of the exemption.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com