Data on B.C.'s drug decriminalization plan to be publicly available on dashboard

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's plan to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use starting Tuesday will include a dashboard of information that will be available to the public and updated quarterly, the federal mental health and addictions minister says.

Carolyn Bennett said the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will evaluate the data on how decriminalization is working and the public is welcome to provide ideas on variables that could be measured as the policy proceeds during a three-year pilot project.

The federal government granted B.C. an exemption last May from Canada's drug laws to allow substance users to possess a total of 2.5 grams of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, as well as crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy.

Over 11,000 people have fatally overdosed in the province from toxic street drugs since it was declared a public health emergency in 2016.

The new policy means people who carry drugs up to the permitted threshold for their own use will no longer be arrested or charged, and their illegal substances will no longer be seized.

"Through this exemption, we will be able to reduce the stigma, the fear and shame that keep people who use drugs silent about their use, or using alone, and help more people access life-saving supports and treatment," Bennett said.

"All activities with illegal drugs, including production, trafficking, import and export, remain illegal, even if conducted with the drugs listed in the exemption in amounts under the 2.5 grams threshold," she added.

B.C.'s Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said that instead of arresting people, police interacting with them will be handing out so-called resource cards with information on voluntary services available in their community.

Calls will be handled by "substance use navigators" who have been hired by health authorities, she said.

"Those health authorities will be connecting people to all the resources that are available in that particular region, whether that is a detox bed, whether it's a counselling service, they'll have access to a whole range of supports," Whiteside said.

She said decriminalization is just one tool in the fight against the overdose crisis and the province has expanded harm-reduction services and opened more than 360 substance-use treatment and recovery beds since 2017, she said.

"Decriminalization is a crucial part of that system. It will help break barriers and create pathways for more people in our province on their pathway to wellness. We know there's more to do and we won't stop working until we turn the tide on this crisis."

Drug users and advocates say the 2.5-gram threshold is too low and decriminalization should also have applied to youth under 18.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press