Manitoba won't ask federal government to decriminalize drugs after B.C. earns exemption: justice minister

The provincial justice minister isn't interested in asking Ottawa to exempt Manitobans from federal criminal charges for possessing small amounts of some drugs, despite the fact the federal government has shown openness to the possibility elsewhere.

Kelvin Goertzen says Manitoba focused on crime prevention, addictions services and won't ask for exemption

Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said Manitoba will not follow B.C's lead in asking the federal government to exempt people here from being charged for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs. (CBC)

The provincial justice minister isn't interested in asking Ottawa to exempt Manitobans from federal criminal charges for possessing small amounts of some drugs, despite the fact the federal government has shown openness to the possibility elsewhere.

The federal government announced Tuesday that adults in British Columbia will be allowed to possess 2.5 cumulative grams of cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA and opioids, starting Jan. 31 of next year.

Manitoba will not follow suit with a request for an exemption of its own, said Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen, who suggested decriminalization isn't the province's focus.

"Obviously we recognize that there are serious issues when it comes to drugs in Manitoba," Goertzen said.

"We're focused on ensuring that we're stopping the flow of those illegal drugs across borders, whether that's crossing the international border or the interprovincial borders, but then also ensuring that there is assistance and support for those who are addicted to drugs."

Goertzen restated a similar explanation when asked why Manitoba would not ask for the decriminalization exemption.

Illicit drug possession falls under federal law, which is why B.C. had to seek the exemption rather than craft one locally.

The B.C. exemption lasts three years, unless revoked or replaced before then, and means no adult in that province will be arrested or charged if found in possession of illicit drugs at or below 2.5 grams. Law enforcement also won't be permitted to seize those drugs from people.

B.C. requested the federal exemption on the heels of record-high overdose deaths during the pandemic — a trend that's also unfolded in Manitoba.

Over 400 Manitobans died from overdoses in 2021, more than in any previous year. Advocates say many of those deaths are a result of a toxic and uncontrolled street drug supply.

Calls for decriminalization have grown in recent years.

In 2020, Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth, then-Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic chief John Lane and Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew joined 20 members of Overdose Manitoba in a national ad campaign calling on the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs.

Last week, Winnipeg city council voted in favour of supporting other groups' pushes for decriminalization. Some who voted against the measure suggested the province ought to take the lead.

Intoxication defence resolution blocked

Also on Tuesday during legislative business, the Opposition NDP blocked an unrelated Progressive Conservative resolution calling on the federal government to walk back a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing an accused to claim they were too intoxicated to be held responsible in some violent crimes.

PC MLA James Teitsma (Radisson) tabled a resolution calling on the federal government to rectify use of the extreme intoxication defence in the courts.

The NDP "talked out" time allocated for the resolution as a procedural way of killing the motion, the governing PCs said.

"People are worried that this gap in our justice system will allow some violent criminals [to] evade justice," Teitsma said in a statement. "The NDP stood against the side of victims today, and on the side of violent criminals."

Goertzen said in talks with attorney generals across Canada, there is a feeling that the decision "is an affront to justice … [and] an affront to victims that needs to be changed."

"We missed an opportunity," Goertzen said Tuesday.

In an NDP statement, a spokesperson said the party felt the PC government needs to first address the addictions crisis, and violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, before New Democrats vote on the extreme intoxication resolution.

"In the past three weeks, there have been three Indigenous women murdered in our province," said Bernadette Smith, Manitoba NDP critic for mental health and addictions.

"This is a clear indicator that more needs to be done to protect Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons in our province."

The NDP's block of the PC resolution comes a few weeks after the PC government similarly "talked out" an Opposition-tabled resolution that urged the province to improve policies designed to protect youth in sports.

After an hour of debate on May 12 , the PCs refused to let that resolution go to a vote, prompting criticism from the NDP and officials in sport in Manitoba.

Opposition to life sentences ruling

On yet another issue involving the federal government, Goertzen criticized the Supreme Court's recent decision that life sentences can no longer be served consecutively without possibility of parole.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court ruled the person who attacked a Quebec City mosque in 2017, killing six people, must get a chance at parole after serving 25 years. He was previously sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 40 years.

The Supreme Court ruled stacking multiple life sentences without parole eligibility at 25 years was "cruel and unusual" and violated charter rights.

"By not allowing those life sentences to be served consecutively ... I think it diminishes the value of each one of those lives, so it's another concern that we've raised with the federal government," said Goertzen.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.

With files from Ian Froese