Canadian province decriminalizes drugs to fight overdose deaths

(VANCOUVER, Canada) — The Canadian province of British Columbia said it’s decriminalizing small amounts of some drugs to help combat the number of drug overdose deaths.

During the three-year pilot program, which started Jan. 31, no one 18 years and older will be charged if caught in possession of 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs, including heroin, meth, ecstasy, among others, for personal use.

“We know criminalization drives people to use alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply, using alone can be fatal,” Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said in a statement Monday. “Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving supports. This is a vital step to get more people connected to the services and supports as the Province continues to add them at an unprecedented rate.”

At least 2,272 people died of an overdose in the province in 2022, officials said. At least 2,306 people died in 2021.

The number of “illicit drug toxicity deaths” was about 6.4 deaths per day in November and December last year, authorities said.

“The shocking number of lives lost to the overdose crisis requires bold actions and significant policy change. I have thoroughly reviewed and carefully considered both the public health and public safety impacts of this request,” Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions of Canada, said in a statement. “Eliminating criminal penalties for those carrying small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will reduce stigma and harm and provide another tool for British Columbia to end the overdose crisis.”

While certain drugs are decriminalized, Bennett said the exemption doesn’t mean they are legal. It means adults will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized. Instead, police will offer information on available health and social supports and will help with referrals when requested, officials said.

Possession of any drugs will continue to be a criminal offense on school grounds and at child care facilities, officials said.

“Decriminalization is an important part of an integrated approach, along with safer supply and public-health supports, to divert persons who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and toward health services and pathways of care because substance use is a health matter, not a criminal one,” Deputy Chief Const. Fiona Wilson, Vancouver Police Department, said in a statement Monday. “This approach has the potential to address harms associated with substance use, reduce stigma, prevent overdose deaths and increase access to health and social services.”

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