British Columbians will see a change in drug possession laws at the end of this month, after the province was granted an exemption decriminalizing personal possession.
In response to the increase in drug-related deaths nationwide, with spikes in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, the federal government has issued a temporary change in drug laws in B.C., which will begin Jan. 31 and remain in effect until 2026.
This change will decriminalize the personal possession of 2.5 grams or less of certain Schedule 1 drugs listed in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, such as heroin, morphine, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and Ecstasy (MDMA).
Police will provide adults found in possession of these drugs with information about social supports, rather than a ride to jail. However, according to the exemption, possession of any illegal drugs in airports and on school grounds is still illegal. Additionally, if in a vehicle, the drugs must not be readily accessible to the driver.
Police can still remove anyone openly using drugs on private property under the Trespass Act, but they will not be subject to federal charges for possession. Travelling outside of British Columbia with any amount of the drugs included also remains illegal.
The exemption comes as the province works to treat drug use and addiction as a health issue after recognizing it as a public health crisis in 2016, prompting several changes in policy and increasing research.
As the exemption is the first issued to any province, it will be monitored continuously and can be revoked without notice.
In a letter of requirements, this exemption is referred to as a part of the “multi-faceted approach” of the province’s mental health and addictions road map, A Pathway to Hope, which was implemented in 2019 as a people-first approach.
The main goals of this approach include reducing barriers to mental health programs, reducing the stigma of drug use, taking the experiences of children and youth into consideration and prioritizing the needs of Indigenous communities.
Fred Cameron, the director of programming at SOLID Outreach in Victoria, said this is a step in the right direction, even if it is not equitable. Criminalizing drug use contributes significantly to trauma responses by people who use drugs, Cameron said. These responses include hiding out, avoiding drug checks and using alone, all of which are associated with higher overdose rates.
While he doesn’t believe the exemption will increase the amount of open drug use, he said decriminalization will help people who use drugs feel less fear, isolation and paranoia. He also said this will contribute to less policing, fewer hospitalizations and an increased ability to access resources.
Still, he said the community as a whole is going to have to adapt to the amount of drugs that can be legally carried.
“Drugs are sold in 3.5 grams, that is the standard measure that goes back decades,” Cameron said. “They made a number that drugs aren’t even sold in, so the whole community is going to have to adapt to that. For the average person in the downtown core in Victoria or Vancouver, 2.5 grams is most of the time going to be enough if they are able to avoid being dope sick until they can get more.”
Dope sickness is the feelings of withdrawal associated with coming off drugs the body has become accustomed to. For opiate users, this can come in the form of cold sweats, nausea, diarrhea and body aches but can be extreme and include convulsions, vomiting and sleeplessness.
For people with less access to drugs due to mobility issues or distance, however, ensuring withdrawal symptoms are kept at bay requires buying higher quantities than the decriminalized 2.5 grams.
Despite the imperfections of the exemption, Cameron maintains this to be a positive step and believes it has the potential to be a small part of a bigger story, which could lead to legalization, similar to that of cannabis.
“My assumption is that we will see something similar happen with harder drugs,” he said. “It is a different story – these drugs have a much harder impact – but we used to see paranoia and some of the other issues with cannabis and it has completely disappeared as public opinion changed around it. We are living in a different world than we were just one generation back. We will see a general culture change and people’s general health, well-being and quality of life will improve.”