Drugs
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

BC becomes first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize possessing small amounts of certain illicit drugs

Critics say the announcement is a step in the right direction but the maximum amount that can be carried is too low

By Brishti Basu
May 31, 2022
Drugs
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

BC becomes first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize possessing small amounts of certain illicit drugs

Critics say the announcement is a step in the right direction but the maximum amount that can be carried is too low

By Brishti Basu
May 31, 2022
Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett announces the exemption on Tuesday, May 31. Photo: Province of British Columbia Flickr
Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett announces the exemption on Tuesday, May 31. Photo: Province of British Columbia Flickr
Drugs
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

BC becomes first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize possessing small amounts of certain illicit drugs

Critics say the announcement is a step in the right direction but the maximum amount that can be carried is too low

By Brishti Basu
May 31, 2022
Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
BC becomes first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize possessing small amounts of certain illicit drugs
Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett announces the exemption on Tuesday, May 31. Photo: Province of British Columbia Flickr

Health Canada has granted BC’s request for an exemption to federal drug control laws in order to decriminalize personal possession of some controlled substances—opioids (like fentanyl), methamphetamine, cocaine, and MDMA—in a step that makes BC the first jurisdiction in Canada where people can use some illicit substances without fear of getting arrested or having their drugs seized. 

From Jan. 31, 2023 to Jan. 31 2026, people in BC aged 18+ will be allowed to carry a total of up to 2.5 grams of opioids (like fentanyl), methamphetamine, cocaine, and MDMA without getting arrested, charged, or having their drugs seized. 

The announcement comes after 9,364 people lost their lives to overdose between April 2016 and March 2022 in BC. 

This exemption to federal laws does not apply on K-12 school grounds, at licensed childcare facilities, and onboard Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters. Canadian Armed Forces members are also not covered by the exemption. 

Lower threshold 

The federal allowance for personal possession has come in lower than what BC had originally asked for—4.5g.

Ahead of the announcement, Garth Mullins, representative of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and podcast host, shared his views about the threshold as one of the advisors to BC on their application for the exemption. He, like others, criticized lowering the possession cap to 2.5g, saying 4.5g was already on the low end of what many people use.

“The first meeting on decriminalization I ever went to was August 1998,” Mullins wrote on Twitter. “As an old-school dopefiend, it warms my heart to see some progress. But the threshold is more appropriate to 1998, when we had heroin that lasted for 8-12hrs. Today's dope has no legs. It barely lasts 2 hrs.”

Critics have argued that a lower than 4.5g threshold will not only continue the criminalization of many users, but also force them into more dangerous behaviour—including having to conduct drug deals more frequently, and not being able to get purchased drugs checked in bulk to ensure they are safe.

According to Mullins, the federal and provincial government, plus “police lobbying,” decided the threshold for the exemption without taking into account input from people with lived experience.

Support Your Community, Support Local Journalism

With paid membership, every penny goes directly to helping our newsroom continue its work and helps our team grow and expand our coverage

Become an Insider

During the announcement on Tuesday, federal minister of mental health and addictions Carolyn Bennett said the exemption was granted after consultation with various groups including people with lived and living experience, health authorities, and law enforcement. In answer to a question about how the 2.5g possession limit was decided, Bennett said it was after considering data from police.

“The evidence that we have across the country and law enforcement here in BC as well as the RCMP has been that 85% of drugs that have been confiscated have been under 2g,” she said.

This threshold could change. 

Bennett and her BC counterpart, minister Sheila Malcolmson reiterated over the course of the announcement that there will be ongoing evaluations before and during the three-year period. 

“We will continue to monitor and evaluate and adapt when necessary,” Bennett said. 

“Mixed emotions”

Fred Cameron had been a drug user for about 25 years. For the past four, he has been working as a program director at SOLID Outreach, a non-profit harm reduction organization in Victoria. Tuesday’s announcement has left him with “mixed emotions.” 

“It’s great to be moving forward. This has been… a long time coming, we’ve been working on it for years, decades even,” Cameron told Capital Daily. “But I don't feel that it goes far enough. I feel the results won't be the same from one person to the next across the province.”

People living in rural communities and people with mobility issues are a few of the groups that will likely continue to face criminalization. 

“If somebody has mobility issues and a fentanyl dependency, they're going to have to have more [drugs] or they're going to wake up sick and not be able to get the substance that makes them well again,” Cameron said. 

Another issue is that the exemption will allow people to carry a cumulative 2.5g of substances on them—not 2.5g per drug—which Cameron says disregards the reality that many people mix their drugs.

“They're combining them in different amounts, sometimes at the same time,” he said. “By having numbers that are too low, it throws off the day to day life of some people. It's not just about recreation.”

Responses

Cameron says he hopes this exemption will be a part of a domino effect towards changing public opinion and stigma surrounding the drug poisoning crisis. 

“People are going to use drugs,” he said. “The government doesn't have the ability to stop them from doing that. So what actually needs to happen, outside of decrim, is the police need to stand down and not criminalize individuals.” 

Law enforcement and health authorities will receive training in the months leading up to the Jan. 31 implementation of the exemption. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said the department “welcomes this announcement” and supports the decriminalization of small amounts of substances. 

“At the same time, VicPD will continue enforcement efforts against those who import, produce and distribute illicit drugs, especially fentanyl,” reads the statement. “Decriminalizing drugs alone will not solve the overdose epidemic that continues to claim too many lives across our province.”

Cameron says when it comes to VicPD, he has seen improvements over the past decade in how some officers treat drug users. 

“Sometimes they'll confiscate drugs,” he said. “Oftentimes I'm walking down Pandora, and I hear someone just told to move along, and they’re just given a warning.” 

But he feels police presence remains too heavy. “That has an effect that ripples out into other services, “ Cameron said. “They're coming with good intentions, but oftentimes they further alienate people.”

The fight to decriminalize possession began before he was born, Cameron said, and for a long time felt like something that would never happen. Now, the door has finally been opened.

“This, hopefully, is a start point in something much bigger,” Cameron said.

—With files from Cam Welch

contact@capitaldaily.ca

Support Your Community, Support Local Journalism

With paid membership, every penny goes directly to helping our newsroom continue its work and helps our team grow and expand our coverage

Become an Insider

Related News

BC becomes first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize possessing small amounts of certain illicit drugs
Stay connected to your city with the Capital Daily newsletter.
By filling out the form above, you agree to receive emails from Capital Daily. You can unsubscribe at any time.