In an effort to reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses across Canada, the province of British Columbia has become the first province to adopt a policy of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of opioids such as fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, and other narcotics. The new legislation means that individuals caught with a maximum combined total of 2.5 grams or less will be spared any criminal charges and instead are offered assistance and information on health and social services.
This monumental shift in Canadian drug policy looks to break down the fear and shame associated with substance use while providing an avenue for those struggling with addiction to seek out lifesaving supports. BC minister for mental health and addictions Jennifer Whiteside commented that, “Adults found in personal possession of any combination of these illegal drugs should not have their lives ruined by criminal charges, but instead receive support for possible treatment and recovery”.
This sentiment was echoed by Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s federal minister for mental health and addictions who said that “decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for lifesaving supports”.
The exemption began on Tuesday January 31st, 2023, and will last three years in order to properly assess its impact before further decisions are made on the matter. It’s hoped that this move helps those struggling with addiction access much needed services such as referral to local treatment centers without fearing legal persecutions or repercussions.
The concept behind this move away from criminalization towards public health initiatives is not new, however, just two years ago Oregon pursued a near identical approach which has sadly been largely ineffective at addressing either fatal overdoses or drug abuse rates which have both unfortunately worsened since its implementation. In 2020 Oregonians were pitched the idea that decriminalization would encourage drug users into government harm reduction facilities such as needle exchanges or Naloxone clinics where they could then be urged into treatment programs, however, it appears only 136 known drug users ever entered into rehabilitation, less than one percent of all users.
It is clear then that more must be done if we are serious about creating an effective environment where those addicted to drugs can find help without risking serious legal consequences. Hopefully British Columbia’s exemption will provide some much-needed answers on how best approaching this difficult situation, but time will tell whether these small steps towards decriminalization will end up making an impactful difference in society