The Decriminalization of Hard Drugs in British Columbia

Nour Zaher

News Editor

On January 31st, British Columbia decriminalized hard drugs. People above 18 can carry around 2.5g of illegal drugs without being arrested. This means 2.5g of cocaine, crack and powder, methamphetamine, MDMA, and opioids (including heroin, fentanyl and morphine) will be legal to carry. 

British Columbia became the first province to exempt adults from any criminal punishment for having a small number of drugs, under subsection 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. No arrest nor confiscation of the drugs will take place. This does not include substances mixed with benzos, whether the carrier is aware or not.

However, this also does not mean the selling of these drugs is legalized. Drug possession is still not allowed in places like schools, daycare centres, and airports. Also, it is forbidden in public places like malls and cafes and includes mobile vehicles. Substances cannot easily be available to the driver in personal motor vehicles, public transportation or to the operator of a watercraft.

This is being done to make it easier for people to obtain the life-saving services and support needed by removing the limitations and stigma. In more recent issues, deaths caused by overdose are at a high, which caused people to ask for ways to reduce it. The previous war on drugs strategy has proven to not be a good solution to the substance problem on a global scale. Enforcement and imprisonment have been the general responses to illegal drug usage. Nevertheless, evidence from Canada and other countries suggests that this strategy fails to significantly lower the supply or demand for drugs, which led to the creation of subsection 56. 

This implementation was put into place because of the shocking number of deaths due to overdose. The opioid crisis has claimed the lives of more than 33,000 Canadians since 2016, with British Columbia suffering the most. The province recorded 2,300 fatalities in 2022. Since the province initially deemed the problem a public health emergency in 2016, the number of annual overdoses and poisonings in British Columbia has soared by 75%. Paramedics in the province handled more than 33 500 calls for overdoses and poisonings in 2022 alone.

In addition, there is some debate about the number of drugs allowed. Some say that 2.5g is too low and not the typical amount users carry. Given how most people consume drugs, drug users claim that the threshold was much too low. Some argue that this may cause users to look for stronger, more dangerous drugs to meet the threshold and/or buy these substances several times a day to still get the fix they need. 

According to Carolyn Bennett, minister of addictions, it may be changed as necessary. 

The B.C. government continues to do other things to improve the situation. They are reforming mental health and substance use services throughout the province. They are also increasing access to harm reduction services including safe supply, tripling the number of adolescent treatment and recovery beds, adding hundreds of adult treatment beds, and more due to previous investments.

The government intends to gather information on health, criminal justice contacts, public safety, and other indicators during the next three years, according to Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of mental health and addictions. The public would soon have access to such data via a quarterly updated web dashboard, she added. 

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