May 31, 2022 - World

Canada to temporarily decriminalize illegal drugs in British Columbia

A person collecting needles and other supplies in a supervised injection center in Vancouver, Canada, in May 2011.
Needles and other supplies are collected in a supervised injection center in Vancouver, Canada, in May 2011. Photo: Laurent Vu The/AFP via Getty Images

Canada's drug regulator announced Tuesday it will temporarily decriminalize illegal drugs for personal use in British Columbia for three years starting Jan. 31, 2023.

Why it matters: The exemption is the first of its kind in Canadian history and is in response to an unprecedented and growing overdose crisis in the province.

The exemption will allow adults in the province to carry up to 2.5 grams of opioids — including heroin, morphine and fentanyl — crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as Ecstasy.

  • They will not be subject to criminal charges for carrying up to that amount of those specific types of drugs and will not have their drugs confiscated. They will be provided with information on available local health and social services and assistance with those services if requested.
  • People will still be subject to criminal charges if they possess amounts above that limit or produce or traffic the drugs. Using drugs near schools, child care facilities and airports will still be illegal.

What they're saying: "We are granting this exemption because our government is committed to using all available tools that reduce stigma, substance use harms, and continuing to work with jurisdictions, to save lives and end this crisis," Carolyn Bennett, Canada's minister of mental health and addictions, said in a statement Tuesday.

  • "Throughout the exemption period, we will work with the province to analyze data and evidence, and assess impact to ensure it continues to be the right decision for people in BC. I assure you that real-time adjustments will be made based upon receipt and analysis of any concerning data."
  • Bennett also announced an additional $11.78 million in federal funding for projects that seek to increase prevention, harm reduction and treatment efforts for people at risk of experiencing substance-related harms and overdose.

The big picture: British Columbia first declared drug-related overdoses and deaths a public health emergency in 2016, and the crisis has only exacerbated throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Canada's national health agency said Tuesday.

  • Last year alone, an estimated 2,200 people died from drug overdoses in the province, more than a 20% increase over 2020's death toll of around 1,700, CBC reports.

Go deeper: U.S. surpassed 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021

Editor's note: This post was updated to include a quote from Canada's minister of mental health and addictions.

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