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British Columbia Decriminalizes Small Amounts of Hard Drugs for Personal Use

May 31, 2022

British Columbia recently announced their plan to decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs intended for personal use, in order to address a dramatic increase in overdoses in the province. It’s a historic move – BC is the first province to decriminalize possession, and so politicians, health officials, and lawmakers will be watching with bated breath to see its effects. 

What are some of the facts? 

This decision comes out of British Columbia’s request for an exemption from current drug laws. The Controlled Drug and Substances Act has a provision in place, section 56(1), which allows for the Minister of Health to exempt a person or group of people from being obligated to adhere to the federal laws if it is deemed “necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.” 

Why is the exemption for British Columbia only? 

Since 2016, the province has documented close to 10,000 deaths from overdose. For the past six years, the province has been under a state of public-health emergency. 

That being said, NDP MP Gord Johns was attempting to pass a bill in the House of Commons that would decriminalize possession of certain drugs country wide. Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, asserted that she would not be voting for this bill, as she felt it lacked “guardrails” which would aid in its enactment, ultimately saying that beginning with British Columbia on its own would be the more “prudent way to go.” 

Johns himself felt that the timing of the exemption for British Columbia was no accident, and that decriminalizing possession of certain hard drugs in the province was the Liberal government’s way of saying “no” to his proposed bill. 

What are the limitations of the exemption? 

From January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026, the limits for possession will be as follows: those 18 and older who live in British Columbia will be permitted to carry no more than 2.5 grams without being arrested or charged criminally, or having the drugs confiscated. In addition to this, there will be no requirement to seek treatment. 

This exemption will not apply on the premises of schools, child-care facilities, airports, Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters, and personal vehicles or vessels being operated by a minor. 

The exemption will expire in 2026 unless it is replaced by another of its kind. 

Criticisms of the exemption? 

The province’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, recently spoke out about the effectiveness of this exemption, saying that, “This guideline for non-enforcement for small amounts of substances is not going to make a significant difference in the short term.” 

Her concerns arise out of the limitations placed on the non-enforcement, in that it does not include any number or weight of drugs found for personal use, as the limit is 2.5 grams. The province was initially asking for a limit of 4.5 grams – which many advocate groups believed was still too little, as chronic users may possess more than this amount at any given time.  

Have other places decriminalized possession? 

Mexico decriminalized possession of certain drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, among others, in 2009. There were limits particular to each drug that were imposed, as follows: five grams of marijuana, half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine, and 0.015 of LSD. It took months for this law to be approved – another reason why political leaders and advocate groups are disappointed with the current exemption. The exemption will not go into effect for another few months. 

Mexico’s level of success with this law was measured in 2014 by the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivos des Estudios Drogas y Derecho – CEDD), which looked at government responses to drugs in Latin America. Specifically, in their findings on the law in Mexico, they found that arrests for drug use and possession only increased between 2009 and 2013, sitting at 140,860. 

On the other hand, Portugal decriminalized drug possession and use in 2001, and is widely considered the most successful example of drug decriminalization. In Portugal, drugs for personal use are still confiscated if found, but there is no criminal charge associated with this; instead, they are treated as administrative offences. The shift from criminalization to an issue of public health has resulted in Portugal having one of the lowest drug death rates in the EU. 

What does this mean for Canada as a whole? 

As of right now, the exemption is not in effect – however, once it is, drug trafficking will remain illegal, and those carrying more than the prescribed limit of 2.5 grams will be arrested and charged. 

The aim is to see whether decriminalization of drugs for personal use will allow for decreased drug death rates, and subsequent increased conversation and rehabilitation. Essentially, governments will see whether a more public health leaning approach to drugs will aid in the issues of overdose and drug use prominent in the province. If this method proves effective, it may be possible that exemptions such as these will become law in the country. Nevertheless, that remains to be seen. 

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