Canada has announced it will temporarily decriminalise the possession of small amounts of some illicit drugs in British Columbia, during a three-year trial. Adults found in possession of a combined total of 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA will not be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized. Instead, those found in possession of drugs included in the trial will be given advice on health and harm reduction.
In a request to the federal government last year, the province of British Columbia said it asked for the drug laws exemption in order to “remove the shame that often prevents people from reaching out for life-saving help”. Overdoses in the province claimed over 2,000 lives in 2021, and 9,400 people have died of a drug overdose since 2016.
Federal minister of mental health and addictions Carolyn Bennett said “for too many years, the ideological opposition to harm reduction has cost lives. We are doing this to save lives, but also to give people using drugs their dignity and choices.”
The three-year trial will run from 31st January 2023 to 31st January 2026. There are some exemptions to the scheme, which will not apply to primary and secondary school grounds, child-care facilities, airports, or to members of Canada’s military.
Mayor of Vancouver, Kennedy Stewart, said he gets email updates every Monday on drug deaths, including nine last week and 12 the week before. One week the update contained the name of his own family member. “I felt like crying, and I still feel like crying. This is a big, big thing,” Stewart said.
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.” British Columbia is the first province to apply for an exemption from Canada’s drug laws. Canada legalised recreational cannabis for use by adults nationwide in 2018.