B.C. takes action to save lives, build new connections to care with decriminalization

VANCOUVER, BC, Jan. 30, 2023 /CNW/ - The Province takes a critical step to end the shame and stigma that prevents people with substance use challenges from reaching out for life-saving help, as B.C.'s decriminalization of people who use drugs comes into effect on January 31, 2023.

Health Canada granted the Province of B.C. a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize people who use drugs. Beginning January 31, 2023 until January 31, 2026, adults (18 and over) in B.C. will not be subject to criminal charges if they possess a small amount of certain illegal drugs for personal use.

"We know criminalization drives people to use alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply – using alone can be fatal," said Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. "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."

This exemption does not mean drugs are legalized. The drugs included in the exemption remain illegal, however adults who are found in possession of a cumulative total of up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized, if abiding by the scope and conditions of the exemption. Instead, police will offer information on available health and social supports, as well as local treatment and recovery options.

"Every day we are losing lives to overdoses from the increasingly toxic illegal drug supply. We are committed to stopping this tragic epidemic with bold action and significant policy change," said the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health. "By supporting British Columbia in this exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, our government is providing the province with the ability to help divert people away from the criminal justice system and towards the health and social services they need. We look forward to continuous collaboration with the Province to measure the public health and public safety outcomes, help save lives, and bring an end to this crisis."

To prepare for January 31, the Province worked with police leaders to develop training resources and practical guidance, which are now available to more than 9,000 frontline police officers.

In addition, the Province is building new pathways into the health care system by hiring health-authority specific positions dedicated to building connections with local service providers and people referred by police. These positions will also help connect people with resources and information on voluntary mental health and addictions supports in their own community.

Drug possession in any amount will continue to be a criminal offense on K-12 school grounds and at licensed child care facilities. Further, decriminalization does not apply to youth aged 17 and under. Youth found in possession of any amount of illegal drugs are subject to the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act, in which they are offered alternatives to criminal charges in some cases.

Together, the federal and provincial governments will be working closely to evaluate and monitor the exemption to ensure we're meeting the desired outcomes of decriminalization and there's no unintended consequences.

This exemption is just one tool in the Province's toolbox in the fight against the toxic drug crisis. In addition, the B.C. government has been urgently working to build a comprehensive and seamless system of mental health and addictions care that works for all British Columbians. This includes adding hundreds of new treatment beds and increasing access to harm reduction programs, such as supervised consumption sites, safer supply and naloxone.


Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer of B.C. –

"The decriminalization of people who are in possession of drugs for personal use is one additional important step to save lives as we continue to tackle the toxic drug crisis in B.C. This exemption will help reduce the stigma around substance use that leads people to use alone and will help connect people to the health and social supports they need."

Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson, vice president of the BC Association of Chiefs of Police –

"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 towards health services and pathways of care because substance use is a health matter – not a criminal one. 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."

Dr. Nel Wieman, FNHA Acting Chief Medical Officer –

"The data clearly shows that First Nations people continue to be disproportionately impacted by the ongoing toxic drug crisis in British Columbia. This is because First Nations people experience stereotyping, racism and discrimination in many different ways, including the health care and judicial systems. Decriminalization will help to mitigate the stigma and shame attached to substance use and reduce the negative impacts of criminal charges, which is especially important to First Nations people who are over-represented in the criminal justice system."

Dr. Scott MacDonald, lead physician, Providence Crosstown Clinic –

"As a clinician, I see on a daily basis the devastating harms caused by the criminalization of people who use illicit drugs. The evidence is clear – these punitive policies lead to high-risk use patterns, increased rates of incurable infections and, perhaps most damaging to our patient's overall well-being, stigma. With this shift to decriminalization, I am feeling more hopeful than ever that we can reduce these harms, particularly stigma, and engage more British Columbians in life-saving support on their path to recovery."

Kathryn Botchford, who lost her husband to an overdose –

"This epidemic touches every layer of society. We need to change the narrative around substance use and break down barriers so people can access the care they need and deserve. We need to end the stigma and start the conversation." APPROVED

Guy Felicella, Peer Clinical Advisor with the BC Centre on Substance Use/VCH –

"Decriminalizing people who use drugs is essential to shifting our approach to substance use from one that is punitive to one that is focused on improving people's well-being. I spent years being targeted by police and served numerous jail sentences for possessing less than a half gram of cocaine. Removing charges for simple possession is one important component of ending the failed regime of criminalization."

More information

For more information, visit gov.bc.ca/decriminalization. 

A Pathway to Hope: https://news.gov.bc.ca/files/BCMentalHealthRoadmap_2019.pdf

Stop Overdose BC:  StopOverdoseBC.ca

Read the full exemption here.

Connect with the Province of B.C. at: news.gov.bc.ca/connect

SOURCE Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, BC


View original content: http://www.newswire.ca/en/releases/archive/January2023/30/c8841.html