Decriminalization officially begins in B.C.

By Alec Lazenby January 31, 2023

B.C.’s provincial government has officially begun its decriminalization pilot program with the support of the federal government. The program will run for three years, allowing drug users in B.C. to carry up to 2.5 grams of illicit substances — such as cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA and various opioids for personal use.

Instead of arresting users or impounding their drugs, police are being trained to distribute pamphlets containing information about voluntary treatment and recovery options. Photos of what different drugs look like in legal and illegal quantities are also being shown to officers.

According to the provincial government, two-thirds of police officers in B.C. have gone through the first of two stages of training, which includes a 45-minute video explaining their roles and responsibilities as part of the project.

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said in conjunction with decriminalization, her ministry will be working to roll out treatment and harm reduction measures such as safe consumption sites, treatment beds and naloxone kits. (Government of B.C.)

Carrying drugs will still be illegal for those under 18 or in the military, as well as in certain locations such as school grounds, childcare facilities, airports, motor vehicles and Canadian Coast Guard vessels.

“As we all know, there is no recovery for someone who is dead,” federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said at a press conference announcing the beginning of decriminalization in B.C. “Through this exemption, we will be able to reduce the stigma, the fear and shame that keep people using drugs silent about their use or using alone, and help more people access life-saving supports and treatment.”

Bennett emphasized that decriminalization is not legalization, and that production, trafficking, import, and export of illicit substances remains illegal.

She said the federal government will be watching the rollout of the program carefully over the next three years, with quarterly data-sharing between the provincial and federal governments.

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the province is rolling out a broad information campaign to help British Columbians understand the program. In conjunction with decriminalization, she said, her ministry will be working to roll out treatment and harm reduction measures such as safe consumption sites, treatment beds and naloxone kits.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry cautioned the pilot won’t be a silver bullet.

“We know that this is a complex problem, and it requires comprehensive multifaceted approaches,” she said at the press conference. “[Decriminalization] will not be perfect, and it’s not going to change the crises that we’re dealing with overnight. But it is a philosophical and an important step that helps us take that next work together.”

Opposition parties question province’s readiness

Despite agreement that decriminalization is needed, the Liberals and Greens are openly musing about whether the province has created the conditions for the pilot to be successful.

In a press release, the Liberals said the NDP government has failed to complete the preconditions laid out by Ottawa in its acceptance of the exemption application last May.

These include the expansion of accessible treatment, ensuring the readiness of the health-care system, and the development of monitoring, applied research and evaluation models.

“As the clock ticks down, there has been a conspicuous lack of clarity from David Eby‘s NDP government about how B.C. will meet its obligations to roll out the policy, and what steps it’s taking to increase supports for those suffering from addiction,” said Liberal Mental Health and Addictions critic Elenore Sturko.

“Not only is the NDP unprepared to roll out this untried policy, but for the last five years, it’s also failed to place any emphasis on the implementation and funding of prevention, recovery, and treatment programs.”

But Whiteside pointed to the province’s continued expansion of treatment beds, counselling services and prescribed safe supply.

“We have over 3,200 treatment beds in British Columbia, we’ve added over 360 since 2017,” she said. “We’ve been adding counseling services. We’ve been building out the Foundry services for children and youth and we’ve been doing all of this work, which is fundamental and is the core pillar of how we are dealing with this toxic drug crisis.”

The Greens accused the government of leaving local governments in the dark and without money for implementation, despite many of the police departments carrying out decriminalization being paid for and operated at the municipal level.

“The lack of a co-ordinated approach to this public health emergency in B.C. leaves decriminalization as just another half-measure. This emergency is in its seventh year, and yet we’re still a province without a clear plan. The piecemeal approach has let 10,000 British Columbians die preventable deaths,” said Green Leader Sonia Furstenau. “We have to start addressing toxic drugs like a public health crisis, stemming from declining mental health, unaffordability, and lack of preventive health care.”

A renewed call for safe supply and reducing the involvement of police

Furstenau said that while sitting on the Select Standing Committee on Health she heard from experts that what is really needed is a dedicated non-prescribed safe supply to get people off toxic street drugs.

She told BC Today in an interview that for many people the current model of safe supply provided by health professionals doesn’t always meet them where they are at. She said the same issue exists regarding other treatment and recovery options.

“If we’re talking about wellness of people, we have to create the conditions that people can be well, that people can thrive — not say to people, ‘Here’s a brochure, good luck trying to access the services that are so difficult to find in communities,’” said Furstenau.

Dr. Bernie Pauly of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research expressed concern that the 2.5 gram threshold and continued criminalization of youth possession will still leave people vulnerable.

“We have to be really aware that there’s harms that come from criminalizing people for substances, including the fact that they’re incarcerated. It impacts their housing; probably most people are going to lose their housing if they’re incarcerated, or not have housing when they get out. Their ability to get employment is [also] going to be impacted,” she told BC Today.

She said this is especially the case for youth, who will be negatively impacted for the rest of their lives if arrested for drug use or possession.

Federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said the federal government will be watching the rollout of the program carefully over the next three years, with quarterly data-sharing between the provincial and federal governments. (Facebook/Carolyn Bennett)

This is something that Fred Cameron, operations co-ordinator and harm reduction manager for SOLID Outreach in Victoria, knows all too well.

Cameron is a former user, who now helps others who are in the same spot he used to be in. He said the real benefit of decriminalization will be for the next generation, who won’t have to worry about being stigmatized for their addiction.

“It completely changed my life, using drugs in an environment of fear,” he told BC Today. “The overdose crisis affects all of us. It could be your friends, could be your neighbours, sons, daughters. Everybody knows somebody who has been affected directly by this crisis and it’s going to take an entire community to get over it.”

Cameron said as addiction becomes understood more as a health-care issue, some duties currently carried out by police can be outsourced to mental health or community outreach workers.

He also reiterated that for many people in rural areas, who may have to travel to get their drug of choice, the 2.5 gram limit is going to be next to impossible to abide by.

“You’re kind of at the mercy of the government’s numbers,” he said. “For example, when going to a concert or something like that, a person is not able to bring enough with them within the legal limits to go for a few days, meaning they’re going to be accessing street supply in unfamiliar territory, which is, of course, quite dangerous.”