Canada province experiments with decriminalizing hard drugs to reduce overdose deaths

In a first-in-the-nation trial, the Canadian province of British Columbia is decriminalizing small amounts of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Adults can now possess these narcotics, along with morphine, fentanyl, and methamphetamine, in quantities up to 2.5g starting on Tuesday.

Canada’s federal government granted the request by the west coast province to try out the three-year experiment. It follows a similar policy in the nearby US state of Oregon, which decriminalized hard drugs in 2020.

Before the pilot’s launch, British Columbia and federal officials highlighted the rules under the federally approved exemption from the Controlled Substances Act.

While still prohibited, adults who will be found in possession of less than 2.5g of any combination of those substances will not be detained, charged, or have their substances taken. Instead, they will be provided with details on the health and social services that are available.

Federal minister of mental health and addictions Carolyn Bennett on Monday called the move “a monumental shift in drug policy that favours fostering trusting and supportive relationships in health and social services over further criminalization”.

Some 10,000 residents have died from drug overdoses since British Columbia declared drugs to be a public health emergency in 2016, officials said.

“Decriminalising people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving support,” said Jennifer Whiteside, the British Columbia minister for mental health and addictions.

Thousands of police officers in the province, including those in Vancouver, the province’s largest city, have been offered training on the rule change.  The program will run from January 31, 2023, to January 31, 2026, unless it is terminated by the federal government,

Some experts have questioned the 2.5g limit, saying that it is not enough to account for the habits of many addicts.

There are some exemptions to the scheme.

The sale of drugs remains illegal. It is also illegal to possess drugs on the grounds of schools, childcare facilities, and airports. Canada legalized the use of recreational cannabis for adults nationwide in 2018.

But the four drugs now allowed in small quantities remain prohibited, meaning there are no plans to sell them in stores, unlike marijuana. Trafficking them across borders also remains illegal.