British Columbia

B.C. proposes drug decriminalization as overdose deaths climb

After a record-breaking year for overdose deaths, British Columbia is seeking federal support, in the hope of becoming the first province to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

Minister of mental health and addictions wrote Ottawa last week asking for a provincewide exemption

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson, seen here next to Premier John Horgan, wrote to Ottawa last week requesting a provincewide exemption under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

After a record-breaking year for overdose deaths, British Columbia is seeking federal support, in the hope of becoming the first province to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs.

In a letter to Ottawa last week, B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson asked Health Minister Patti Hajdu for a provincewide exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, "as a way to reduce stigma as a barrier to treatment."

More than 6,000 people have died of overdoses in B.C. since 2016, when the province declared illicit drug deaths a public health emergency .

In 2020, 1,716 people died which equates to 4.7 deaths a day — a 74% increase compared to 2019.

Malcolmson outlined the measures and policies B.C. has adopted in an attempt to curb the number of deaths, including overdose prevention sites, sustained access to Naloxone, expanded bed-based services and enhanced access to safe supportive housing.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has the power to exempt 'any person or class of persons' from provisions of the Controlled Drug and Substances Act. (Christopher Mulligan/CBC)

Despite "significant progress," Malcolmson writes, "people who use drugs continue to face obstacles accessing these services,"In particular, "stigma around drug use" and "fear of criminal sanctions."

Under Section 56 of the Act, the minister may exempt from its provisions "any person or class of persons ... if, in the opinion of the minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest."

In 2019, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recommended the province move swiftly to decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs, writing it is a "fundamental underpinning" and "necessary" next step in addressing the crisis.

In a 2019 report, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry called for the decriminalization of people who possess controlled drugs for personal use. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Decriminalization would see the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use changed from a criminal offence, which might involve jail time, to an administrative one, likely involving fines. Manufacturing or trafficking illicit drugs, however, would remain illegal.

There has been a growing push to decriminalize drugs in recent decades, inspired in large part by Portugal, which moved away from prohibition in favour of a harm reduction approach in 2001.

Earlier this month, Oregon became the first U.S. state to embrace decriminalization.

In November 2020, the City of Vancouver approved a motion to put the idea of decriminalization for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs before the federal government.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously shown resistance toward decriminalization, saying it is not a "silver bullet" solution.

"Decriminalization is a step," said B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, upon sharing the overdose death statistics for 2020.  

"There needs to be some serious motivation, intention on the part of every government level ... across the country to say, how do we prevent all of these deaths?"

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