BC asks Health Canada to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs

Nov 1 2021, 10:55 pm

In a move being described as an important step forward to prevent drug-poisoning deaths, the province of BC has applied to the federal government to remove criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

British Columbia is the first province in Canada to ask for an exemption from Health Canada under Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

“Substance use and addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. 

“BC is adding new health and substance-use care services almost weekly, but we know shame prevents many people from accessing life-saving care. That’s why it’s crucial to decriminalize people who use drugs.”

Since a public health emergency was declared in 2016 in BC, there have been 7,700 deaths associated with the toxic drug supply.

“BC is in the midst of two public health emergencies: COVID-19 and the toxic drug crisis,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, BC’s provincial health officer. 

“The intersection of these two emergencies has produced tragic results. BC’s application to Health Canada to decriminalize people who use drugs is a vital step to keep people alive and help connect them with the health and social support they need.”

In a release, the government says it worked with health and social service providers, Indigenous partners, people with lived and living experience, municipalities, law enforcement, advocacy organizations and clinical and research experts. 

If Health Canada approves the BC application, police would not be permitted to engage in drug seizures, arrests, or charges for simple possession for those aged 19 or over who possess at or below a total of 4.5 grams of illicit drugs.

Some advocates, including the Pivot Legal Society, worry BC’s model will not adequately protect people who use drugs.

The BC Association of Chiefs of Police also has some concerns.

In a release, the BCACP says it “recommends a more measured approach that will see incremental increases as required, and supported by evidence.”

The group says it will continue to work with the province and health partners to combat the deadly opioid crisis.

Amanda WawrykAmanda Wawryk

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