British Columbians will not be arrested or charged for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use for three years, as the government seeks to address an overdose crisis in the province.
B.C. has been struggling with a public health crisis in relation to overdose deaths and related harms since 2016, with close to 26,700 opioid toxicity deaths reported between January 2016 and September 2021. In November 2021, the province submitted to the federal government an exemption request to subsection 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to halt criminal charges against adults in the province in possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
The exemption will be effective between Jan. 31, 2023, and Jan. 31, 2026, and applies to all B.C. residents aged 18 and older who are in possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs, including opioids (heroin, morphine, and fentanyl included), cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA, the B.C. government said in a statement released on May 31.
Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of mental health and addictions, said the exemption aims to slow the overdose crisis and doesn’t mean legalization.
“This is not legalization. We have not taken this decision lightly,” she said in a press conference on May 31.
People found in possession of illicit drugs under the 2.5-gram threshold will not have the drugs seized. Instead, the police will only “provide information on local health and social services and voluntary referrals to those services,” the statement reads.
The exemption applies to the majority of locations in the province, with exceptions for airports, elementary and secondary school premises, premises of licensed child care facilities, and on Canadian Coast Guard helicopters and vessels. This means anyone found in possession of any amount of illicit drugs in these locations will still face criminal charges.
Underage youth in B.C. are not covered by the exemption, and those between the ages of 12 and 17 will be subjected to the Youth Criminal Justice Act if found in possession of illicit drugs.
The exemption makes B.C. the first jurisdiction in North America to lift prohibitions on the possession of small amounts of so-called hard drugs. While the U.S. state of Oregon decriminalized such possession, the drugs found are still seized and those in possession face a US$100 fine.
Ottawa has provided $182 million for Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP) to address the overdose crisis, and has added another $100 million through the 2022 budget. British Columbia has received $11.78 million in funding for 14 community-based projects to tackle the issue, according to a Health Canada statement released in May.
The Canadian Press contributed to this article.