Personal possession of a small amount of hard drugs is now legal in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The controversial move is intended to reduce deaths from drug use.
The personal possession of 2.5 grams of hard drugs, including cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine and morphine, has now been decriminalized. This temporary exemption means a person found with a small quantity of these drugs will not have them seized nor face arrest or any criminal charges.
An average of six people a day die in British Columbia from illicit drug use, mostly men in their private residences.
The day the three-year pilot program went into effect, the provincial coroner announced 2,272 people had died in 2022 from drug overdose. That was the second highest on record, topped only by 2,306 deaths in 2021.
It is hoped decriminalizing small-scale possession will help fight drug mortality by putting the focus on treatment instead of criminal prosecution.
Retired police officer Chuck Doucette, president of the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, is strongly opposed to the move, and said that “it really doesn’t address the issues at all, it’s not going to save any lives.”
He pointed to the number of deaths by overdose and added that with drugs, “Whether they’re legal or decriminalized or not — doesn’t make them any less likely to kill you.”
Kora DeBeck, a research scientist at the BC Center on Substance Use in Vancouver and an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, backs decriminalization. She said that research shows prohibition does not work, but compassionate treatment of drug-dependent people can work.
“We see so many signals that that improves our ability to connect with people who use drugs — to connect them with supports and services and things to reduce harm to them, and to their community,” DeBeck said.
She added that decriminalization had already happened to a large extent nationwide, with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other law enforcement agencies already not arresting anyone found with a small amount of narcotics.
Constable Tania Visintin of the Vancouver Police Department says the difference now is that any small amount drugs found will not be seized.
“We were legally bound to seize those drugs, even if it was a small amount, and we would seize them for destruction. So they would never be part of any kind of charge or court case at all,” Visintin said. “But now under this new exemption, then, we just won’t be seizing any drugs that we find that are in a small personal use possession type of form.”
For DeBeck, the benefit of this is that those addicted to drugs won’t be compelled to go to extraordinary lengths to replenish their supply. Before, said DeBeck, if their drugs were seized, “they may go to a less reliable source.”
DeBeck said that it placed people “in a desperate situation, they may have to resort to risky income generation or criminal activity or something like that.”
The exemption, which has the blessing of the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will last for three years and is limited to British Columbia for now.