A Canadian province has received an exemption from the nation’s drug law, even in the face of a growing drug crisis.
The province of British Columbia was exempted from Canada’s “Controlled Drugs and Substances Act,” effectively decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. The exemption allows for drug users to possess up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use, without having to face criminal charges. The move comes even as Canada, and British Columbia especially, is in the midst of a growing opioid crisis, but the province actually cited that crisis as one of the reasons it requested the exemption.
“The federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health granted the province of British Columbia (BC)’s request for a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for adults (18 years of age and older) in the province to possess small amounts of certain illegal drugs for personal use,” the federal government of Canada said in a statement. “What this means is that from January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026, adults (18 and over) in BC will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of a cumulative total of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use. Instead, all individuals found in possession of substances listed in the exemption of up to 2.5 grams for personal use will, at minimum, be provided with information on available local health and social services. They can also be provided with assistance to connect with those services if requested. The exemption only covers possession for personal use by adults (18 and over) in BC with no intent to traffic, produce or export.”
The exemption covers four types of drugs: opioids, including fentanyl, morphine, and heroin; cocaine, including both crack and powder; methamphetamine; and MDMA, aka ecstasy or molly. It will cover all adults throughout the province, with the location exceptions of elementary and high schools, licensed child care facilities, airports, and Canadian Coast Guard vessels and aircraft, where it will still apply. It also does not apply to existing laws against taking drugs between provinces, and special restrictions will apply to motor vehicles, watercraft, and public transit.
The provincial government of British Columbia requested the exemption as part of its “comprehensive public health response” to the growing problem of opioids and stimulants in the province. “British Columbia has been greatly impacted by overdose deaths and related harms, and declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency in 2016,” the Canadian government said.
According to a study conducted by the government, opioid and stimulant-related overdose deaths nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021. Between April 2019 and March 2020, there were 3,711 opioid or stimulant deaths in Canada; between April 2020 and March 2021, there were 7,224 deaths, a 95% increase. The number of deaths in British Columbia rose every year from 2016 to 2020, the study found, and the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario accounted for more than 88% of overall drug overdose deaths across the country. Those same three provinces also accounted for a majority of opioid and stimulant-related poisoning hospitalizations.
“Comprehensive monitoring and evaluation from the federal government will help to inform whether the exemption is contributing to the comprehensive approach to reduce stigma and harms related to substance use and increase access to health and social services for people who use drugs,” the government concluded in its statement. “Substance use is a public health issue that is shaped by complex factors, many of which can be beyond an individual’s control. As mental health and substance use among Canadians have worsened throughout the pandemic, it is clear that solutions to the overdose crisis must consider broader health and social issues.”