Yukon considers decriminalizing small quantities of drugs to address substance use emergency

The Yukon government is considering whether they should decriminalize very small doses of hard drugs.

Health minister says decision could come as soon as September

Yukon Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee. She said the territory could make a decision about decriminalizing small amounts of hard drugs as early as this September. (CBC)

The Yukon government is considering whether it should decriminalize very small doses of hard drugs. 

Tracy-Anne McPhee, the territory's health minister, told CBC News it's one of several options the government is considering as its next steps to address the substance use emergency. 

"Work is ongoing with this issue at the moment," McPhee said. "We have to determine what is the problem we're trying to solve, if this would be effective here in the territory, and if it would have the impact that we want it to have.

"I think it's an important option for sure. I think you're going to see it requested." 

If the Yukon government decides to go ahead, it would have to file a request to the federal government for an exemption to the Controlled Substances Act.

British Columbia was the first province or territory to do this and, in May, received confirmation from Ottawa that anyone who has 2.5 grams or less of opioids on them for personal use would not be subject to a criminal charge.

Legislature building in Whitehorse, Nov. 2016. The Yukon government is looking into whether to decriminalize small quantities of illicit drugs in response to the ongoing substance use crisis. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

McPhee said the territory is still quite far from reaching a decision one way or another, but is looking to B.C. to see how its exemption will come into force. 

Yukon RCMP already lay "very few" charges for possession of opioid-related substances, McPhee said. Data on the number of charges was not immediately available from the justice department upon request.

In a statement, Health Canada said it's only received requests from the cities of Vancouver and Toronto, as well as the province of B.C., for exemptions under the Act. 

Heather Jones, the territory's chief coroner, said in an emailed statement that the exemption granted to B.C. is "a positive step in reducing stigma for substance users." 

"It is felt by the [Yukon Coroner's Service] that the real difference in saving lives will only come with access to a safe drug supply," the statement continued. 

Alex Hodgins, a community harm reduction coordinator with Blood Ties Four Directions in the Yukon, said the harm reduction organization is in favour of decriminalizing small amounts of illicit substances. 

He added that like many other front line workers and substance users, they would like to see the amount raised to at least 4.5 grams.

"I think what we would want to see [in Yukon] more than we saw with what happened in B.C. is more listening to substance users themselves, and talking to self-governing First Nations, and respecting requests," he said.

The territorial government is hosting another mental wellness summit in September, which McPhee said will allow for more people with life experience and who work on the front lines to be consulted. 

She said a decision could be made after that. 


Anna Desmarais is a videojournalist for CBC North based in Whitehorse. Before that, she spent two years as the South Slave correspondent based in Hay River, N.W.T. She's also reported from Yellowknife, Ottawa, Edmonton, Toronto and Kathmandu. Reach her at or @anna_desmarais.