British Columbia decriminalizes limited possession of cocaine, opioids

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TORONTO — The possession of small amounts of several illicit drugs, including cocaine and opioids such as fentanyl or heroin, will be temporarily decriminalized in British Columbia, the federal government said Tuesday, in what it cast as a “bold” step to “turn the tide” in the province’s overdose crisis.

Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of mental health and addictions, said Ottawa had granted the provincial government’s request for an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for three years, starting Jan. 31, 2023.

As of that date, adults 18 and older in Canada’s westernmost province will be allowed to carry a cumulative total of up to 2.5 grams of some drugs for personal use without being arrested or charged, or having their drugs confiscated. The illicit drugs include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.

The trafficking, production, export and import of those drugs will remain illegal, as will the possession of any quantity of those drugs at airports, near child-care facilities and primary and secondary schools, or by members of the military.

“This is not legalization,” Bennett told reporters at a news conference in Vancouver. “We have not taken this decision lightly.”

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The move, a first in Canada, comes six years after British Columbia declared a public health emergency in response to soaring overdose deaths. Since then, deaths have climbed dramatically. A record 2,236 people died of an overdose in 2021 — up 125 percent from the public health emergency declaration in 2016.

Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for people ages 19 to 39, according to provincial officials, and the crisis has led to a decline in the life expectancy at birth for men in recent years.

Nationally, nearly 27,000 people have died of an overdose from January 2016 to September 2021.

A growing chorus of people, including the nation’s police chiefs, have called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal use, though he had long been noncommittal.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart was among them. He told reporters that every Monday, he receives an email with the number of people who have overdosed in the city and the number who have died. Once, Stewart’s family member was among the statistics. This Monday, he learned there was an agreement on decriminalization.

“I can tell you I felt like crying, and I still feel like crying,” Stewart said. “This is a big, big thing. … It marks a fundamental rethinking of drug policy that favors health care over handcuffs.”

In its submission to Health Canada requesting the exemption, the province said punitive drug polices disproportionately affect marginalized communities and don’t ultimately address what’s a public health issue. It said federal drug laws were having the opposite effect of their intent and making drug overdoses more likely.

“Criminalization and stigma lead many to hide their use from family and friends and to avoid seeking treatment, thereby creating situations where the risk of drug poisoning death is elevated,” it said.

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The submission said the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis by reducing access to treatment services and driving people to use drugs alone in perilous situations, while border closures have created a more unpredictable street supply.

The 2.5 gram threshold is below the 4.5 gram limit that the province had requested. In its submission, it said that thresholds that are too low have been ineffective “and diminish progress” on the objectives of decriminalization.

“The evidence that we have across the country and [from] law enforcement … has been that 85 percent of the drugs that have been confiscated have been under 2 grams,” Bennett said, “and so we are moving with that.”

She said the government will be monitoring the threshold and whether decriminalization is meeting its aims.

Canada, which in 2018 legalized marijuana for recreational use, has been more receptive to a harm-reduction approach to overdoses than the United States.

British Columbia’s Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver gives pharmaceutical-grade heroin to patients for whom other types of treatment have proved ineffective.

Provincial officials, fearing a resurgence of overdose deaths during the pandemic, altered guidelines last year so doctors could prescribe some patients a take-home “safe supply” of drugs such as methadone and the opioid hydromorphone, to reduce the use of contaminated street drugs.

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