Skip to main content

British Columbia will be the first Canadian province or territory to decriminalize possession of “hard” drugs such as illicit fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Here’s what you need to know:

What drugs are being decriminalized in B.C.?

British Columbians 18 and older will be able to carry up to a cumulative total of 2.5 grams of opioids including heroin and fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA – the substances most commonly associated with deaths from toxic drugs – without risk of arrest or criminal charges. Police are not to confiscate the drugs, and there is no requirement that people found to be in possession seek treatment.

The exemption will not apply at elementary- and secondary-school premises, at licensed child-care facilities, in airports, or on Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters. As well, possession is still prohibited in personal vehicles or watercraft operated by a minor, regardless of whether the vehicle or watercraft is in motion. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces are subject to the Code of Service Discipline, so the exemption will not apply to them.

When does the legislation come into effect?

The legislation comes into effect Jan. 31, 2023. The exemption that enables the legislation expires on Jan. 31, 2026, or the date when it is revoked or replaced by another exemption.

“This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada, and with it comes great responsibility for the health, safety and well-being of the people in British Columbia – and a template for other jurisdictions across Canada,” Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said on Tuesday in Vancouver.

How did this change happen?

In November, 2021, B.C. formally submitted an application to Health Canada, seeking to decriminalize personal possession of up to a total of 4.5 grams of illicit drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and crack and powder cocaine. The proposal also suggested that people caught with less than this amount for personal use be given information on how to access local health and social services.

In order to decriminalize the substances, B.C. needed an exemption from federal drug laws.

Ms. Bennett, alongside B.C. counterpart Sheila Malcolmson, announced in Vancouver Tuesday that an exemption was granted.

Under Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the minister of health can exempt from provisions of the act “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.”

This exemption has been used to allow for the operation of supervised drug-use sites and to conduct research or clinical trials that involve controlled substances. More recently, it permitted pharmacists to prescribe, sell and transfer prescriptions for controlled substances so people with substance-use disorders could continue to get medications during the pandemic.

Ms. Malcolmson told reporters in April that Ottawa was considering the application with a lower threshold. Critics said a lower threshold failed to account for illicit fentanyl driving up opioid tolerances, and the fact that some drug users purchase and hold small amounts of drugs for others.

In an interview, Ms. Bennett said that law enforcement stakeholders say about 85 per cent of drug seizures are less than two grams, and that they were uncomfortable with the idea of a higher threshold.

Why does B.C. want to decriminalize drugs?

An estimated 27,000 people across Canada have died from illicit drug toxicity since 2016, and nearly 10,000 of them have been in B.C. In 2021, 2,236 people in B.C. died from illicit drug toxicity.

The province declared a public-health emergency in 2016, and since then, the illicit drug supply has grown increasingly volatile, with extreme levels of fentanyl concentration and benzodiazepine adulteration; annual drug deaths have increased by 124 per cent.

Advocates have put pressure on governments to re-examine drug laws that they say were intended to minimize harms but have had the opposite effect. Fear of arrest can keep people who use drugs from seeking help, and Indigenous and racialized communities are disproportionately impacted.

A 2018 report found that two-thirds of B.C. overdose victims had spent time in custody or under community supervision.

Lori Hatfield of Lethbridge, Alta., said removing the threat of imprisonment lifts one of the burdens from people struggling with addiction. Her adult son, now in recovery, was in and out of jail on drug charges for many years, and once suffered an overdose shortly after release.

Proponents of safe supply say it’s a way to curb the growing number of Canadians dying each year to a street drug supply saturated with dangerous substances such as fentanyl. Safe supply programs offer pharmaceutical alternatives and studies show they can prevent overdoses and other crime, while critics worry that recipients may sell their prescribed drugs to buy other substances.

The Globe and Mail

How is decriminalization different than legalization?

Decriminalization means that a person will not face criminal penalties for possessing a small amount of certain drugs under the approved threshold – 2.5 grams in B.C.’s application. It is still illegal to produce, traffic and export drugs, and the illicit drug supply does not change.

Under legalization, currently illegal drugs would be regulated, meaning there would be government oversight, quality controls, warnings and other safety measures, as with alcohol, cannabis or tobacco.

Some critics point out that decriminalization alone, without any measures to address the toxic drug supply, will do little to stanch drug deaths.

What happened with the threshold limit?

Drug user advocates consulted as part of B.C.’s application process had proposed a threshold of 4.5 grams per drug, saying it reflected real patterns of drug purchase and use. Some people buy in bulk, or for others; many use multiple substances; and fentanyl has sent opioid tolerance soaring. They accuse the province of adding the word “cumulative” at the last minute and without consultation, and say a threshold that is too low will leave out many of the very people the exemption aims to reach. Ottawa, meanwhile, deemed even a cumulative total of 4.5 grams to be too much, and approved 2.5 grams.

Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett said the lower threshold is a starting point that can be evaluated and adjusted as needed. She said 85 per cent of drug seizures by law enforcement are under two grams, but her office did not provide the data source on Wednesday.

The Globe and Mail reached out to the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police, which provided some drug seizure details from four police agencies in the province. In the past year, seizures from the Abbotsford and Vancouver police departments – of drugs relevant to the application – averaged 1.9 grams, according to the association. The Victoria Police Department averaged 1.6 grams and the RCMP North District 1.3 grams.

Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr said there are some issues with the data, given that many officers are no longer seizing drugs, and that those weights include packaging. But the intent of analyzing the data was to get a better sense of possession habits, rather than consumption habits, he told The Globe.

“What we found is it’s under two grams across the board in B.C.,” he said.

Opinion: With decriminalization, the B.C. government has acknowledged what experts knew all along

What will happen with Vancouver and Toronto’s exemption applications?

The City of Vancouver, pleased with B.C.’s successful application, will suspend its own. Asked about the status of Toronto’s application, Ms. Bennett said it is still under review, and that the city and other interested jurisdictions now have a template to follow.

“The criteria that we need to see from jurisdictions is that there will be a diversion from the criminal justice system to health and social services,” Ms. Bennett said in an interview.

“In British Columbia, they’ve done a lot of work increasing the health and social services, in terms of putting in place some of the other harm reduction approaches, as well as public education, the ongoing consultation with stakeholders, the training of law enforcement…. I think all the jurisdictions will now have a look at this and be able to fine-tune their applications.”

Will Canada decriminalize drug possession nationally?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said his Liberal government is not planning to decriminalize drug possession nationally. Asked again on Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau said a “system and supports” must first be in place.

“And that’s what we were really focused on with B.C., to make sure that it wasn’t just flipping a switch, that it was actually building up capacity and making sure that there are many, many ways to support people, whether it’s safe supply, whether it’s, you know, measures that surround this decriminalization,” he said.

With reporting from Marcus Gee

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.