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B.C. reveals plan for decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use

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British Columbians are getting a clearer picture of what the province’s three-year plan to decriminalize small amounts of certain illicit drugs for personal use will look like when it launches Tuesday.

As part of a first-in-Canada pilot project, people aged 18 and older can legally possess a combined 2.5 grams of illegal drugs, including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.

Last May, the federal government granted B.C. an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Under it, adults will no longer be arrested, criminally charged or have their drugs seized if they’re found carrying a small amount for personal use. B.C. had originally requested a threshold of 4.5 grams, but Ottawa said it decided on a lower amount after speaking with law enforcement agencies.

‘A MONUMENTAL SHIFT IN DRUG POLICY’

Carolyn Bennett and Jennifer Whiteside, the federal and provincial ministers of mental health and addictions, along with B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry broke down the program’s rollout during a news conference Monday morning.

Bennet describes the exemption as “a monumental shift in drug policy that favours fostering trusting and supportive relationships in health and social services over further criminalization.”

Her provincial counterpart says substance use is a public health matter, not a criminal justice one.

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs is a critical step in tackling the toxic drug crisis. It will help break down the stigma, fear and shame around substance use that prevents people from accessing life-saving services,” Whiteside said during the announcement.

More than 10,000 British Columbians have died from illicit drug overdose since a public health emergency was first declared in 2016.

“Decriminalization is a historic change, but we know it will not solve the toxic drug crisis on its own. This is one tool in the province's fight against this ongoing public health emergency.”

The Canadian Institute for Health Information is expected to spend nearly $3 million as the oversight committee tasked with monitoring the program and analyzing data for the federal and B.C. governments.

“We are committed to a dashboard quarterly that will be updated for Canadians,” Bennett said.

POLICING UNDER THE NEW POLICY

Over 140,000 resource cards have been printed and distributed to police agencies and public health agencies in preparation of the policy change, according to a Health Canada official. The cards are to be handed out to drug users who are found to possess small amounts of illicit drugs.

Two-thirds of the 9,000 frontline officers who have been offered training in preparation of the policy change have already completed it, according to Whiteside. That includes members of the BC RCMP, Metro Vancouver Transit Police and the Vancouver Police Department.

The province says additional staff has been hired in each health authority to liaise with people who have been referred by police.

Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson, the vice president of the B.C Association of Chiefs of Police, says the exemption will allow front line officers to “focus on those doing the most harm in the overdose crisis: persons and organized crime groups who manufacture and distribute these toxic substances.”

PROTECTING YOUNG PEOPLE

Whiteside says one of the province’s top priorities is to protect children and youth while implementing this exemption.

“We want parents to know that we are always discouraging youth from experimenting with drugs,” she said, adding resources are being prepared for parents and schools to talk to kids about decriminalization.

Possession on the premises of elementary and secondary schools, licensed child-care facilities, at airports, and on Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters is a criminal offence.

Since the province’s exemption is not legalization, illicit drugs will not be sold in stores and drug trafficking of any amount is still against the law.

NOT LEGALIZATION

Since the province’s exemption is not legalization, illicit drugs will not be sold in stores and drug trafficking of any amount is still against the law.

The exemption does not change Canada's border rules and taking any amount of illegal drugs across domestic and international borders remains illegal.

Bennett warned the import, export, production or sale of drugs could still land people in jail.

Insp. Conor King with the Victoria Police Department said many police departments stopped pursuing charges for simple possession years ago. He said once decriminalization kicks in, drugs won’t be seized either.

“We're hoping those interactions will be non-criminal and positive in nature so we can stop these overdose deaths,” King told CTV News.

CALLS FOR SAFER SUPPLY

While advocates for drug users have long pushed for decriminalization, many say that without access to safe supply people will keep dying.

For six months, Drug User Liberation Front, an organization created in the wake of the overdose crisis, has sold drugs made and tested in B.C. to members at cost.

The group says a review has found of the 40 people included in the so-called compassion club model, none have died.

Co-founder Jeremy Kalicum said many of the drug users have reported they are using less, and overdosing less.

The unsanctioned trial doesn’t have federal approval, but Kalicum said it’s an example of how well a safer supply system could work.

“Decriminalization as a response to overdoses is a drop in the bucket,” he told CTV News. “But it is an indicator that there's political … and social will to make steps to address this, which is great.”

The province has undertaken many firsts in responding to the health care emergency, and decriminalization is seen as part of that.

“This is one tool in the province’s fight in this ongoing public health emergency.” said Whiteside. 

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